New Disney musical’s songs won’t leave your brain
MOANA (John Musker, Ron Clements). 107 minutes. Opens Wednesday (November 23). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Go ahead, call Moana derivative. She can take it.
Yes, this is another Disney animated adventure where a plucky misfit hero with an animal sidekick sets out on a heroic journey to save her people and discovers herself along the way while belting out catchy songs.
This is an entirely fair assessment. And Moana knows it and has fun with it. It’s a playful, self-aware delight from beginning to end, a cinematic Broadway musical from John Musker and Ron Clements, who perfected the form in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules.
Musker and Clements take the standard quest narrative – teenage islander Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) sets sail to recruit the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, perfectly cast) on a mission to save her people and the world – and reframe it, remixing the usual Disney mechanisms in a gorgeous visual aesthetic and an incredibly catchy song score distinguished by the signature verbal acrobatics of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The bouncy introductory number riffs on the opening of Beauty And The Beast, but here the happy islanders counter Moana’s desire to explore the ocean with a fearful isolationist theme – making Moana’s inevitable I-want song feel more urgent when it comes.
And Maui’s big number inverts Aladdin’s Friend Like Me, with Johnson’s character boasting of his self-embiggening accomplishments instead of gushing about the ways he can help the story’s actual hero. (That song will never leave your brain. You’re welcome.)
Even if the tropes are familiar, they’re realized so enthusiastically that you’ll feel you’re seeing them for the first time. Other sequences, like an attack by tiny pirates and an encounter with a kaiju-scale beastie voiced as a louche glam-rocker by Jemaine Clement, are busy but never chaotic.
I’m not entirely sure Musker and Clements stick the landing the resolution to Moana’s quest plays very nicely on one level but feels awfully clumsy on at least two others, as if the filmmakers were still working out its core ideas when final rendering started. But they recover for the epilogue, which will send you out on a high.