A Few Things You May Not Know About Disney's Moana
Before I commit these articles to "paper," I always write and brainstorm passages in my head. Since being invited to an advance screening of Moana last Sunday, I've been hashing and rehashing the movie to myself, trying to decide what to say. Everything I loved, a few things that maybe could have been improved... and the remarkable thing that's happened in those days? The list of things for improvement has gotten shorter and shorter while the "love" list has continued to grow. When movies continue to improve on reflection? Those are the best movies.
Moana is a full return to the Disney Animation Renaissance of the early 90's. Sure, Tangled and Frozen have been hinting at reviving the Disney Princess Musical (and Tangled, in particular, is a really incredible film), but Moana is the first film since The Lion King to give me chills with just a few notes of the opening musical number. So go see it. Sure, there may be a few slightly flimsy plot moments (they can't all be Pete Doctor Oscar nominated scripts), but the heart and spirit of this film are so tangible and vibrant, it can't be denied.
So with that glowing endorsement and avoiding spoilers, I decided to go digging for some fun facts that may further enhance your appreciation of the film (it did for me!)
I don't feel like I can oversell this music. Moana is not Disney's first venture into a foreign culture (story or soundtrack-wise), but it's probably the most successful merging of culturally influenced rhythms, vocals, and melodies with lyrical broadway-influenced storytelling and pure Disney inspiration (The Princess And The Frog is the only other feature that comes close to being this effective musically). I'm already hearing people compare Moana's "How Far I'll Go" to "Let It Go," but I will go so far as to compare it to what is (in my eyes) the best Disney Princess song: "Part of Your World." Lyrically, it might be slightly less memorable, but the melodies and the incredibly emotional and believable vocal delivery of FOURTEEN year old Auli'i Cravalho give me chills. In a soundtrack that is stacked with memorable and unique numbers, this young woman repeatedly raised goosebumps on my arms and brought tears to my eyes for every reprise and standouts like "I Am Moana" and the heartbreakingly brief but heart-stoppingly beautiful "Know Who You Are." Lin-Manuel Miranda is living large as America's broadway sweetheart, and he lyrically steers the ship of this film. Opetaia Foa'i, the singer of South Pacific fusion band Te Vaka, lends some cultural authenticity, while Mark Mancina (Tarzan) leads the score and musical melodies. This is the first Disney musical soundtrack since The Lion King that I'm obsessively listening to even without my kid.
By the way if Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to take home an Oscar for the music of Moana (he will, trust me), he'll only be the third person in history to claim the PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).
Speaking of Ms. Cravalho, she heads up a cast including Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, Oscar Kightley, and Troy Polamalu, and Jemaine Clement, making this the first time a cast of Pacific-Islanders has led a Disney/Hollywood film. Yes, JEMAINE CLEMENT (the New Zealander) was one of my favorite surprises of the film. Clement already proved he had the vocal chops to make a great over-the-top villain in the Rio franchise, and he continues to be a memorable addition here. The Rock gives you yet another reason to fall in love with him, proving he can sing and charm even when you aren't looking at him.
JOHN MUSKER AND RON CLEMENTS
The Little Mermaid. Aladdin. Hercules. The Princess and the Frog. These two are responsible for films that have been irreplaceable parts of multiple generations' childhoods. Moana marks their first venture into fully-CG animation, but it has the same magic these gentlemen have managed to capture every time they get together. Fun note: caricatures of the two men make cameos in all their films. Did you recognize their inspired likenesses in Moana?
Speaking of Hei-hei, the rooster marks the fifth consecutive Disney Feature to include the voice talents of everyone's favorite Leaf On The Wind, Alan Tudyk.
I am that person who is mourning the loss of hand-drawn animation at Disney. Princess and the Frog was such an under-appreciated gem, but I understand Disney having to follow the trends and get with the times and meet the demands of their audience yadda yadda yadda.
Maui's tattoos are purely hand-drawn animation. Mini-Maui is the voice of reason and Maui's conscience, echoing Jiminy Cricket (the directors have cited Pinocchio as a favorite film in the past). Moana is only the second CG Disney film to incorporate hand-drawn animation (Bolt was the first).
"If you're making a movie about a part of the world, for many people that will be their only exposure to that culture," he says. "So you should know something about that culture when you write it." - Lin-Manuel Miranda
The casting and the music certainly lend authenticity, but the story and legends incorporated into it all embrace authentic Pacific-islander culture. An advisory board was established, and all the filmmakers took multiple research trips to the pacific islands to influence their work. The costumes, the characters, even the constellations were crafted with reverence to the subject matter and culture.
Disney has been making a concerted effort toward modernizing the Disney heroine, but Moana gets to stand alone as the first Disney Princess without even a hint of a romantic subplot (even Merida, though disinterested, was dealing with unwanted suitors). Moana's character arc is entirely focused on her own self discovery, which is not in any way dependent on a romantic interest. Hot. Dog.
Moana struggles to juggle the not-unwanted obligations and responsibilities to her family and people with an instinct inside of her that calls her to another purpose. Moana must be brave enough to attempt perilous tasks, face off with demigods, and defeat malevolent forces all without the encouragement of her family and people (save her "crazy" grandmother). There is no force on earth that will save her people other than Moana's own will and perseverance.
I still stand by my words that Judy Hopps is the best heroine Disney has ever churned out, but if we're looking at the human options only? Moana is getting the job done. And then some.
So go see it. Take your daughters, but take your sons and your cousins and your best friend, too. I haven't even talked about how breathtakingly well-captured the Pacific Islands are visually...
*Disclaimer: I was invited to partake in a media advanced screening of Moana at the Polynesian Village Resort. We were given a meal and meeting op with Moana and Jared Bush. I was not obligated to write anything in exchange. All opinions stated here are my own.*