When Disney released The Princess and the Frog in 2009 and unofficially announced that they would be returning to the animated Disney musical format, fans were excited, but not quite obsessed yet.
The next year brought us Tangled, which brought a whole new generation of musical lovers into the fold. It was around this time that people started murmuring about whether or not Disney would be entering a new golden age of animated musicals.
Then came 2013, and Frozen swept the world like a wonderful and terrible curse. At this point, fans felt that they had permission to freak out. Were Disney musicals coming back to stay?
After seeing Moana, we can tell you they absolutely are.
By mixing together a room full of geniuses – directors Ron Clements and John Musker of The Little Mermaid fame, well-known Pacific islander musician Opetaia Foa’i, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of a teeny tiny the musical sensation called Hamilton – Disney has managed to pull a true classic out of the sea.
Like most animated Disney musicals, Moana is a tale from far away: this time from across the Pacific Ocean on a series of islands loosely known as Oceania. 16-year-old Moana must decide between following her father’s footsteps to become the chief of their village, or following her heart to explore the ocean.
The theme of exploration, both of the world and of oneself, bursts out of this movie like lava from a volcano, and the songs highlight these themes in gorgeous and sometimes unexpected ways.
The music created by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i positively soars and cements Moana as a classic that will keep fans humming for years, and maybe even decades to come. We predict it’ll only be about six months before we start seeing the demi-God Maui’s song “You’re Welcome” on karaoke machines across the country.
Songs like “We Know the Way” directly immortalize the culture of Oceania and its people, while also weaving in their native tongue with Miranda’s English lyrics. Clements and Musker both cite The Lion King as their guiding light for how to do this correctly, imbuing the music with a sense of purpose and identity.
Meanwhile, songs like “Where You Are” (the film’s “happy village” song) and “How Far I’ll Go” (the film’s “I want” song) both echo their ancestors in a way that both pays tribute, and invites Moana into the realm of classic Disney musicals.
Pacific islander culture is a cornerstone of this film, even to the point where the storyline arc plays out like a myth told over a campfire. Our heroes must face a number of different challenges in order to restore harmony to the sea, and each obstacle plays out like a trial that tests our heroes’ understanding of who they are and how they can use their strengths to their advantage.
In short, Moana is proof that Disney isn’t done with their animated musical format. Not by a long shot. Fans of golden-age Disney musicals as well as fans of brand new Tony-award winners (like Hamilton), will be thrilled by this perfect blend of old and new Disney magic.
Summary: Firmly cementing itself into the “classic Disney animated musical” genre of films, ‘Moana’ combines an energetic mix of brilliant songs, extraordinary visuals, hilarious characters, and a story that feels like it should be told around a campfire.