I think 2016 was a good year for animated films, but if I had to pick just one to take with me to a desert island (sorry for the cliché), then I think Moana would be my choice. It could be the Disney kid in me—these are the directors who also helmed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, for instance—though Moana has a number of merits to make it stand on its own. The biggest: definitely the songs composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda; they’re memorable, eclectic, and (most importantly) emotionally satisfying. I’d argue they’re better than the songs in Frozen—I mean, can anyone remember a song from that film other than “Let It Go”? Moana’s soundtrack will stick with you much longer.
The animation, though, is also a major asset. The Polynesian setting is so warmly, colourfully evoked; the ocean water glistens pristinely; the minor touches (including Maui’s tattoos) are integral to the circumstances of story and scene. So much care and craftsmanship is evident despite the 3D style that it rather puts something like Zootopia, with its generically-rendered animals, to shame. Even though I still prefer hand-drawn animation, I can live with 3D if it’s done like this.
I know Moana’s detractors have called out its derivative story, and I can’t argue that it’s one we haven’t seen many times before. I still reveled in it. I thought the characters were perfectly engaging, and the voice work from Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho was fantastic (particularly the latter, who is definitely going to be in more films after this). What mattered most to me, however, was the lyrical nature of the story’s beats, and how sensitively Moana’s journey towards self-affirmation was sketched. It was like the magic of old Disney sprinkled with modern feminist concerns, and most importantly, Moana came out fully-fleshed and human instead of a cardboard composite or being too perfect. The balance was just right.
Everyone involved here did a great job. Honest to goodness, I would watch it again right now, and if I were still a kid, I’d probably have memorized the soundtrack in a week. Disney’s still going strong, and I’m loving it.