This is Disney’s next entry in its attempt to revive its Renaissance-era format of ambitious fantasy-themed animated musicals, and in its own way, it’s as impressive as their last attempt, Frozen…not quite as dramatic, perhaps, but even richer in atmosphere.
The film certainly looks absolutely gorgeous, with visuals rivaling those of Frozen, only here centered on the open sea and tropical island landscapes instead of winter backdrops. It also has two extremely well-developed and complex main characters, both of whom receive voice performances that do full justice to their nuance. I was especially impressed at former professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson’s performance as the complicated antihero figure Maui.
The film’s creative use of mythological sources and much of its overall feel reminded me quite a bit of the underrated television series of Disney’s Aladdin, which is by no means a bad thing. It’s also the first Disney film based on the Disney Renaissance model to be completely without a love story…even Frozen had a secondary love plot, but this film is entirely focused on its fantasy adventure theme. The result is actually rather refreshing, although I hope the political correctness types don’t try to turn this into a requirement for every single future Disney film.
But above all else, what carries the film is its music. The songs were largely written by the current darling of Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda, although there were also contributions from instrumental film composer Mark Mancina and Pacific Fusion musician Opetaia Foa’i. It’s musically richer than Frozen or most other Disney animated musicals, and unlike most of them, it continues to function as a musical right up until its climax.
The big ballad, “How Far I’ll Go”, was unfavorably compared to Frozen‘s “Let It Go” when it charted on the Hot 100, but it is far more affecting when actually heard in the context of the movie (indeed, the two reprises it receives are far more moving than its original iteration, which is obviously all that made it onto the charts). “You’re Welcome” for the demigod Maui may somewhat resemble a modernized version of “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, but it’s a delightful song accompanied by very creative visuals, and Johnson sings it surprisingly well.
Overall, this is an incredibly accomplished work that could genuinely challenge Frozen as the greatest of Disney’s modern masterpieces. If they can keep making films like this, it seems like they may actually regain the iconic status they had in the old days and be seen as a magical dream factory again instead of the corporate Evil Empire they’re mostly thought of as today.