Between 1989 & 1994, Disney released The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These are big, bold musicals, painting on an epic scope, complete with instantly iconic characters and songs. Who hasn't found themselves humming 'Be Our Guest' or 'Hukana Matata'?
More recently, the House of Mouse have re-embraced the creating of exceptional animated films. From the swashbuckling fun of Tangled, to the all consuming Frozen, to Zootropolis, which has one of the smartest messages of 2016, Disney has yet to set a foot wrong. And so its spate of great animations continues with Moana.
The film embraces Polynesian folk lore, telling the story of Moana who must venture out from her village, across the oceans, find the fallen demigod Maui, and restore the heart of a goddess to bring balance and order back to the natural world. At its core, Moana's strength lies in the richness of the folk lore it taps into, allowing the film to stand out from a crowded animated field.
Where the film truly stands out is the music, which is simply outstanding. It brings together South Pacific musician Opetaia Foa'i and musical theatre genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. If Miranda rings a bell it is because he is behind the Broadway smash Hamilton, which arrives in London at the end of the year. Together they have crafted a number of outstanding songs, from the exhilarating beautiful, 'How Far I Go', to Maui's big number, 'You're Welcome' (which has been a firm fixture on my daily playlist), to the David Bowie-infused 'Shiny' (sung by the ever fabulous Jemaine Clement), this has to be one of the strongest musical soundtracks of recent years.
Our dynamic duo are effortlessly played by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho (Moana) and megastar Dwayne Johnson (Maui). Cravalho makes an evocative heroine with many of the stand out musical moments belonging to her. She is the beating heart of the film, but it is Maui who will leave you smiling. Johnson is a surprisingly passable singer, and his Maui brims with confidence. It helps that the film gifts him the best number of the film, 'You're Welcome', which feels like Moana's take on 'Friend Like Me'. Moana caps an extraordinary run for Dwayne Johnson as he has morphed into one of the biggest stars in the industry.
As strong as our heroes are the film struggles to find a thematic core to build its set pieces around. The film lacks a compelling villain, seemingly content to throw new encounters at our heroes during their quest. Once these threats are dealt with they disappear from view as the journey continues. And yes, any film that has a pair of sequences that can be titled 'Coconut Mad Max remake' & 'David Bowie crab' is worth your time, but the strength of the classic animated Disney films is in their villains. Moana lacks an Ursula, Gaston, Jafar or Scar.
It is this flaw that holds Moana back from touching the greatness of Zootropolis. But it by no means diminishes the film, which stands as one of the strongest animations from Disney in recent years; a bright, thrilling journey to take.