Two years ago, it was easy to get swept up in the animated hype surrounding “Moana,” Disney’s latest CGI creation. Soaring on a magnificent wave of calming blues and greens, the film was as lush in color as a Monet masterpiece, buoyed by stirring tracks from “Hamilton” superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda. But now that we’re cast safely away from the treacherous waters of 2016 hype, “Moana” still shines with quality but doesn’t reach the true depths of storytelling mastery.
We follow the eponymous Moana, (Auli’i Cravalho), a free-spirited young woman destined to be the new chieftain of her island paradise, Motonui. But ever since the demi god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a mystical pounamu stone from the island’s goddess Te Fiti, Motonui has seen its once ripe fruit and lush landscape start to decay. Moana embarks on an a-typical hero’s journey to find Maui, deliver him to Te Fiti and restore balance to the community.
The characters and their motivations are solid, even if their animation isn’t as impressive as other recent Disney voyages. Moana is complex but relatable, speaking to each of our inner-child’s needs to swat down a quiet life in favor of spirited adventure. And while not as whimsical or sardonic as his fellow mouse-eared sidekicks, Maui is a crafty-enough anti-hero to conjure powerful laughs with his godly magic.
But the story itself fails to catch wind. Moana and Maui get out of tough jams by escaping, not defeating their enemies. The story itself travels more along Maui’s arc, with Moana dedicating herself to helping him rehabilitate his image. At the start of the movie, Moana is a confident seafarer with a strong sense of community and self. At the end, she’s still the exact same thing.
We don’t notice this since we’re caught up in the feel-goodery of Miranda’s tracks and the visual splendor of the oceanic landscape. It’s like taking a road trip or cruise and forgetting about how long you’ve actually been travelling since you’ve been staring out the window at the clouds for so long. “Moana” still follows the long-established story beats of classic Disney flicks, but doesn’t leap to the levels of greatness of its predecessors.