About two-and-a-half decades ago, Ron Clements and John Musker directed two of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s biggest hits, The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). These movies sandwiched Beauty and the Beast (1991) and signalled the start of a terrific run of success for the Mouse House which ran for nearly 10 years. Pixar then took over as global kings of animation with their CGI creations, while Disney Animation’s films started under-performing.
Eventually Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006 and its Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter was given oversight of both Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation divisions. By 2010, the older sibling was showing signs of resurgence and has since had a good run of hits including Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia.
During Disney Animation’s fallow years, there are two films which I very much enjoyed although both under-performed at the box office – Treasure Planet (2002) and The Princess and the Frog (2009). Both were directed by the same duo of Clements & Musker. Somehow, I have loved their work, even though they have used different styles of animation across their films. One aspect has stayed consistent with this duo which is that their films have all been produced using traditional hand-drawn 2D animation. Now for the first time, the veterans (both are 63 years old) have directed their first fully CGI-animated film, Moana. Unlike many of Disney’s previous films which have been loosely based on fairy tales or literary characters, this is an original story.
The opening half hour of the film is really enjoyable, as it introduces the lead character of Moana, first as a child and then growing up surrounded by her parents, grandmother and villagers and the standard Disney animal sidekicks (Heihei the rooster and Pua the pig). Moana’s grandmother is a wonderful character; wise and far-seeing, she plants the seeds of adventure into the young Moana’s mind and eventually triggers her flight from the safety of her island home on a quest which will help save her people. At this point, she meets up with the demi-god Maui, played by Dwayne Johnson. Moana has to persuade Maui to join her on a journey to Te Fiti island to reverse a curse that is killing all the life in the ocean and on the islands. The two develop a semi-antagonistic relationship somewhat reminiscent of the one in Mulan between the heroine and Eddie Murphy’s magical dragon Mushu.
The film is a bit over-long, running for nearly two hours. There is a segment during Moana and Maui’s journey to Te Fiti island in which they are attacked by some pygmy pirates; it’s an entertaining sequence but doesn’t add anything to the story. In fact, other than the hilarious scenes featuring Moana’s pet rooster Heihei, the journey was a bit boring; by the time they reached the island and began the climactic battle with the lava monster Te Ka, I actually fell asleep for a short while.
Many of the songs in the film didn’t work for me, but there are three which stand out. One is the introspective How Far I’ll Go, sung by 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho who voices Moana. Another is the rousing We Know the Way, sung by Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda (who have also written all the songs in the film). And You’re Welcome, sung by Dwayne Johnson himself, the story of all his past exploits inventively picturised using the tattoos on his body.
So overall, not likely to be one of Disney’s classics, but a solid entry from one of my favourite animation directing teams.
Special mention for the wonderful short film Inner Workings, attached to the start of the feature. Real fun but also thought-provoking.