In recent years Walt Disney Animation Studios has quietly begun to take back its mantle from fellow Disney studio, Pixar, as the premiere American animation studio. Since 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the studio has either delivered critically acclaimed films or box office smashes. This year it had two films that received acclaim and money. The first was Zootopia, which was released all the way back in March but still finds itself in the middle of an awards season discussion. The second was released just in time for the holiday season. Moana actually has a lot in common with Zootopia, even if it will draw more comparisons to Frozen. Zootopia struggled a lot with trying to stretch a surface level theme across an entire runtime only to conclude with such an empty feeling. Moana unfortunately has a similar problem. All of the singing and action scenes in the world don’t save Moana from the fact that it doesn’t really go anywhere as deep as it thinks it does with its themes. A strong female lead and some gorgeous (and maybe even groundbreaking) visuals make it a stronger film than Zootopia, but this film is no Frozen.
Moana follows the titular character (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) as she is raised to be the next leader of her island. With aspirations of living on the sea she is constantly being told by her father (Temuera Morrison) to keep her focus on land. That is until she begins to realize that an ancient curse that is beginning to hit her island may only be stopped by looking to the sea. A lot of Moana’s plot is so cliché-riddled that it’s hard to ever get invested in this film, and its themes of independence, self-belief, and redemption just seem like after thoughts in the final product. So many other components of this film are getting all of the attention right now that it’s hard to see this film having a lasting impact when at their root films are all about plot and theme.
That being said everything around the core of this film is well done for the most part. Auli’i Cravalho does some really fantastic work as the voice of Moana. She seems so natural despite having so little experience. Most of the rest of the voice work is solid even if Dwayne Johnson’s “scene-stealing” turn as a boastful demi-god leaves a lot to be desired. The songs are for the most part well-done but I have a hard time imagining I will be remembering any of them the way I remember “Let It Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”. The real highlight of this film, though, is the visuals. Water has never been animated so life-like and this is easily the first film to animate the body mechanics of singing so naturally. The way the vocal chords and facial regions of these character move is some of the best CGI work that has ever been put onscreen.
Moana is a beautiful film but not much more than that.