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Moana Does Everything Disney Does Best

With nearly eight decades of feature-length animated films under its belt, Disney has had plenty of time to perfect its formula, but there was a period when the studio’s once reliable sensibilities seemed to be falling out of favour. However, thanks to the efforts of Pixar mastermind John Lasseter—who now oversees the studio’s animated activities—Walt Disney Animated Studios seems to be going through another golden age. If you thought the studio’s other recent efforts (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia) stirred memories of Disney’s original glory, expect nothing less from Moana, a film that uses tried-and-true storytelling techniques and state of the art animation to explore characters and conceits that feel refreshingly new.

Growing up in the idyllic island village of Motunui, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) has felt a lifelong attraction to the sea. Unfortunately, her explorer instincts have been stifled by Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of the village and Moana’s strict father. Forbidden from venturing beyond the reef surrounding the island, this young woman feels separated from her destiny, one made apparent during her surreal childhood interactions with the ocean. However, when Motunui is ravaged by a curse, causing coconuts and other crops to crumble, Moana realizes that she has the power to save her people—if she ignores her father’s restrictions, takes to the ocean, and returns “the heart of Te Fiti” stone to its rightful owner.

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Joined by Heihei (Alan Tudyk)—a clueless rooster with virtually no personality or brainpower—Moana travels into uncharted territory, eventually locating Maui (Dwayne Johnson), an arrogant, self-serving demigod who has the skills necessary to help Moana achieve her mission. After some initial resistance, Maui agrees to help, but not until he has retrieved the fish hook that gives him magical shapeshifting abilities. While this duo gets off to a rocky start, they eventually forge a productive alliance, helping one another battle the obstacles that stand in the way of Moana’s larger goal.

As any fan of Disney animated movies will acknowledge, the studio is better at inventively repackaging familiar ideas than breaking new ground. Moana’s predictable character arcs and feel good conclusions are exactly what you expect, but a spirit of inventiveness can be felt in individual moments sprinkled throughout. The highlight is arguably “Shiny,” a psychedelic musical number performed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement. A radical departure from the film’s more traditional feel-good anthems (by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda), this is the kind of surprising flourish that prevents Moana from drowning in formula. The same could be said of Maui’s unpredictable shapeshifting and Moana’s magical powers of ocean control.

You don’t have to dig very deep to see this film as a metaphor for the animation process. Just as Moana achieves invigorating results by liberating herself from the restrictions of her father, the creative team behind this film (including four directors and eight writers) are at their best when liberating themselves from the restrictions of conventional animation. As Lasseter’s tenure at Walt Disney Animated Studios continues, here’s hoping he follows Moana’s lead, embraces his destiny, and reaches even further outside the comfort zone.

Moana arrives in theatres today. Before diving in, check out the trailer below.

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