It’s hard to think of Frozen and not immediately be brought back to the hysteria-like reaction to its release three years ago. It was an instant classic to say the least and its soundtrack soon found its way into ubiquity as “Let It Go” became a part of our everyday vocabulary. The cold did bother me, anyway, because I regrettably saw it after hearing nothing but that song and people telling me its the greatest thing ever for months before it finally came out on DVD.

So that’s why I made it a goal to get out to see Moana in its opening week before everyone was talking about it and I didn’t have to hear it on the radio every time I got in the car.

Disney’s latest is one of their best ever, consistently raising the bar every step of the way while also bringing important changes to the role of their “princess” figure and highlighting a culture so sorely left out of most mainstream media. 

Moana (voiced by the heavenly Auli’i Cravalho, in her debut) is the Chief’s daughter who has spent her life being groomed to be his replacement. Always reminded not to venture beyond the reefs that surround their island community, Moana is called to by the sea yet forced to remain stuck on their tiny portion of land with resources dwindling.

Yet their forced isolation is actually caused by the theft and loss of Te Fiti’s heart by the demigod Maui (voiced by a cocky, self-assured Dwayne Johnson) centuries before. Darkness has since spread across the land and is now arriving on the shores of Moana’s village.

With Heihei the not-so-smart chicken, Moana sets off across the ocean with catchy songs (with help from recent phenom Lin-Manuel Miranda) and perhaps Disney’s most beautiful animation to date. The amount of blues and greens is staggering with the water looking so vividly real its almost like every shot is like a screensaver. Every detail is so beautifully realized, even Maui’s tattoos have a life of their own—each tattoos can move and communicate, and often times they are the funniest part of the film.

But the most pleasant surprise of the movie is Moana’s relationship with the forgivably douchey Maui. Their first meeting gets off to a rough start, but the two build something beautiful together. Disney ushers in a new and much-welcomed era where romance is optional for their characters and now women are cleaning up after the men’s messes and bringing about the necessary changes that should have been there all along. There’s no romance here, no Prince Charming for Moana to eventually fall for—just a girl who wants to save the day for herself and for her community.

Another wonderful change is seeing the culture of Polynesia on the big screen. Sure it’s an animated film, but it has to start somewhere. While much of the conversation in Hollywood nowadays is the lack of representation of African Americans in film—and award ceremonies—its easy to forget Asians, Pacific Islanders, Polynesians, and Filipinos. Cultures so full of lore, myths, and legends are just aching to be heard, and I hope Moana can be inspiration enough to bring more of them to the surface for the world to experience.

While it’s a little too early to tell if the music will reach the same heights that Frozen reached, there’s still some astounding works in the film—especially Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” which serves as the guiding song for her character and is irresistibly catchy. 

If there’s anything to really find gripes with in this beautiful movie it’s that it lacks a memorable villain. Whereas Frozen held its villain a secret until the big twist, Moana’s villain(s) are hardly seen and underused. It can easily be excused if you put it in the context of what the story is really about—understanding you can be yourself while also being who others need you to be—but when you compare them to villain’s of past Disney films, they’re severely disappointing. 

Moana might just be Disney’s crowning achievement so far in the 21st century. As we all very well know, only  time will tell if Moana enters the pantheon of Disney classics. But for now we can be thankful that Disney is taking risks; they’re changing the formula, and they’re taking steps to highlight cultures missing from most other films all while delivering on their signature masterful animation, unforgettable characters, and music that will be stuck in your head for weeks to come. Moana is the best animated film of the year.

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