Moana (2016)

The best Disney film this side of Tangled. Moana is a delightful mix of different music, solid storytelling, and a mentally challenged chicken. From the Polynesian setting to the the lack of romantic subplot, Disney makes something fresh while also being familiar. It’s the same princess story we’d expect, but with a lot of interesting twists and turns along the way.

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the tribe leader and next in line to lead her people. While her father, Tui (Temuera Morrison), insists they remain on the island, Moana feels the call of the sea. When the food begins to spoil, Moana goes on a journey to enlist the help of demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore the earth back to health.

For starters, the music is both familiar and different. The big influence here is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s style of hip hop. Granted, there is a lot of songs that sound like what you’d expect from this kind of movie, but Miranda slips in some zest in songs like You’re Welcome with those rapid, witty lyrics that make his Broadway musical Hamilton such a hit.

The world and setting also give this film a lovely flavor. A lot of the princess films stick to obvious locales for their stories, so it’s nice to get something off the beaten path. The Polynesian setting gives the world an interesting cultural perspective with a culture of gods and the ocean. And the sea setting is something that hasn’t been explored in a Disney film quite like this.

It helps that the comic relief is restrained this time around. The worst element of Frozen was Olaf’s annoying shenanigans and corny lines. This time around, Moana has a pet chicken who doesn’t speak and provides a lot of genuine laughs on the merits of physical comedy instead of butt jokes.

Disney put out two hits this year. While Zootopia gets a bit muddled in messaging, this one sticks on point and shows that the Disney princess formula still works if you give it enough of a unique flavor. It’s also nice to get a Disney musical again and while Lin-Manuel Miranda is no Alan Menkin, he does a fine job of crafting a fun, catchy musical.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing