The Oberlin Review

Miranda’s Score Elevates Moana to Excellence

Moana+and+demigod+Maui+are+voiced+by+Auli%E2%80%99i+Cravalho+and+Dwayne+%E2%80%9CThe+Rock%E2%80%9D+Johnson%2C+respectively%2C+in+Disney%E2%80%99s%0Anewest+musical+adventure.+A+beautiful+view+into+a+new+future+for+Disney+animated+films%2C+Moana+enjoyed+a+successful%0Afirst+week+in+the+box+office.
Moana and demigod Maui are voiced by Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, respectively, in Disney’s
newest musical adventure. A beautiful view into a new future for Disney animated films, Moana enjoyed a successful
first week in the box office.

Moana and demigod Maui are voiced by Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, respectively, in Disney’s newest musical adventure. A beautiful view into a new future for Disney animated films, Moana enjoyed a successful first week in the box office.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Photo courtesy of Disney

Moana and demigod Maui are voiced by Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, respectively, in Disney’s newest musical adventure. A beautiful view into a new future for Disney animated films, Moana enjoyed a successful first week in the box office.

Christian Bolles, Arts Editor

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Decades ago, Walt Disney Animation Studios perfected the art of fantasy. The studio has always endeavored to craft worlds that the viewer aches to live in; the timeless, dreamlike quality of its tales of princesses and castles has given them the power to endure. Looking back, though, it’s hard to reconcile the glimmering surface of Disney’s animated worlds with the fundamental whiteness and rigid patriarchy that comprise their conceptual frameworks. Even Frozen, for all that it eschews standard love story tropes in favor of sisterly love, was a snow-covered echo of its predecessors’ white idyllicism: lavish balls, towering palaces and swooning lovers.

Moana, directed by Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements, is cut from an entirely different cloth. The rich Pacific setting, quite literally straight out of Polynesian myth, is teeming with reverence for the culture depicted within it, scoring high above Musker and Clements’ Aladdin. The creators of Moana draw a hard line in the sand when it comes to their protagonist: Moana is realistically proportioned, fiercely independent and deeply capable, giving the film a rock-solid anchor even when it threatens to get lost at sea. And it’s hard to overstate the significance of her age; at 16, she is neither assigned a love interest nor objectified in the slightest, a stark contrast to Tangled’s Rapunzel escaping with her future prince on the day she turns 18. But Moana is far more than a beacon of progress; the film is beautifully crafted as well. That beauty begins with the central cast. Disney has found a true talent in the wonderful Auli’i Cravalho, who voices Moana. Her performance is completely believable, communicating emotion with a natural knack for nuance, and her singing is glorious — no small feat, considering she celebrated her 16th birthday the day before Moana’s theatrical release. Additionally, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s camera presence magically endures in the animated Maui, demigod of the wind and sea. Johnson makes excellent use of his only song, “You’re Welcome,” belting out its earworm chorus with the same brand of infectious confidence that has made his career soar. Finally, an honorable mention goes to Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, whose turn as a treasure-encrusted crab called Tamatoa is delightful and terrifying in turns.

The chemistry between Cravalho and Johnson is excellent — a necessity for the film’s remarkably focused narrative. Moana, driven by wanderlust and the impending doom of her home island of Motunui, sets sail to find Maui and deliver him across the sea, where he must return the heart of island goddess Te Fiti. The script is full of heart, as can be expected from a Disney film, yet is acutely aware not just of itself, but of its predecessors, subverting the lack of inclusivity in previous movies of its ilk with precise jabs. Though the story itself is formulaic in its liberal application of the now-tired “hero’s journey” format, its steadfast adherence to Moana’s perspective and the lack of an overarching villain set it apart. This might be a problem if Moana weren’t such a fascinating character, but her constant growth and endless optimism buoy even the sparsest moments. And when comic relief is short, an absurdly brainless chicken named Heihei comes to the rescue.

A scraggly creature incapable of performing even the most basic tasks, Heihei is the be-all, end-all of animal sidekicks. In most Disney films, the animal companion acts as a surrogate for the audience, subtly influencing events on-screen with a wink and a nod. Heihei, on the other hand, represents absolutely nothing. It’s simply a vacuous little chicken, and should assume its rightful place in pop culture memory as a rebuke of Disney formula.

For Frozen, Disney enlisted two of the hottest composers on Broadway with songwriting duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, which paid dividends with the wildly successful “Let It Go.” To continue that legacy, Musker and Clements turned to the obvious choice: Lin-Manuel Miranda, award-winning creator of Broadway megahit Hamilton. Miranda’s versatility and precision infuse every song, from the sweeping “How Far I’ll Go” to the villainous “Shiny.” His collaboration with musician Opetaia Foa’i of the South-Pacific fusion group Te Vaka lends a savvy perspective to the songs that focus on Moana’s heritage, aiding in the creation of a fantasy world rooted firmly in a vibrant, enduring culture. Viewers will be rewarded for multiple listens, where the full complexity and brilliance of Miranda and Foa’i’s lyrics and instrumentation reveals itself.

The excellence of Moana’s inner workings allows impressive visuals to stand out all the more. It’s hard to imagine how the animators could possibly render better-looking environments without crossing over into photorealism. The film’s islands are nothing short of breathtaking and the open ocean has never looked more inviting than in the film’s many aquatic vistas. But even surrounded by beauty as Moana and Maui are, the characters’ lifelike expressions steal the show. When Moana sings of crossing the ocean, she seems as real as the waves around her.

Any film can be judged upon the quality of its climax, and Moana’s is gorgeous in every way. Animation, performance and music converge to craft a single moment that could send shivers down any spine, making “Know Who You Are,” though just over a minute long, the film’s most memorable song. It’s an apt encapsulation of the movie’s acute emotional intelligence, sense of style and reverence for the culture at its heart. With a stellar opening week at the box office, Moana is on track to become one of Disney’s greatest hits yet and has the potential to effect real change on the studio’s future work.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.

Established 1874.