I saw Moana Monday night and have not stopped listening to the songs since. All the songs are credited to Mark Mancina, who also composed the score; Opetaia Foa’i, of the Oceanic band Te Vaka; and Broadway star and alleged heartthrob Lin-Manuel Miranda, and as much as I hate myself for saying this, the result is magical. Frozen produced one great earworm, but Moana has like, three solid candidates for Best Original Song. Like The Little Mermaid, Moana will be remembered more for its music than anything else, which is saying something because the movie itself is damn good.
Moana is basically Reverse Ariel—she’s a strong-willed daughter who longs for the sea but her father wants her to remain on land. She lives on the island paradise of Motunui, where she will be the next chieftain of her people. But Moana yearns for adventure and with the encouragement of her grandmother—the resident crazy old lady— she soon enough sets sail on a quest to restore balance to the ocean.
The reason the ocean needs to be rebalanced is Maui, a trickster demigod who stole the Heart of Te Fiti, causing a blackness to seep out into the world and destroy all life. Moana’s quest is to find Maui and return the Heart to Te Fiti, thus saving her people. But Maui is not keen on this plan, as he sees the Heart as a curse and just wants to be rid of it. Most of the movie is a two-hander between Moana and Maui as they reluctantly work together to return the Heart.
As voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, Moana is spunky and cute and brave, and she has real chemistry with Dwayne Johnson, who voices Maui, whose braggadocio covers up a touching vulnerability. They’re joined by Moana’s pet chicken, Heihei (clucked by underrated Hollywood ginger Alan Tudyk), and pursued by Mad Max-inspired coconut pirates and a giant disco crab voiced by Jemaine Clements. Moana is eye-poppingly beautiful, with a gorgeous tropical palette, photo-real vistas, and that crab sequence is bright in the fun way, not the oh-god-my-eyes Trolls way.
But the real standout is the music, especially the contributions from Lin-Manuel Miranda. You can tell which lyrics he wrote because they’re either 1) rapped by The Rock, or 2) full of Miranda’s trademark boundless optimism. Miranda isn’t just writing songs, he creates the theme of the entire movie and reinforces it so well musically that the actual movie parts of Moana are kind of redundant.
You can’t find your way unless you know your past, the songs of Moana say, and where we come from is as important as where we’re going. Moana sings of exploration and discovery but also legacy, which echoes Hamilton, in which Miranda turned the dusty-fusty story of a half-forgotten Founder into a manifesto of immigrant pride and accomplishment. And in Moana the message comes with a sense of unrestrained joy and hope that uplifts the entire movie—the music isn’t servicing the story here, the story is a frame for the music.
Moana is a really good movie that will hook kids and adults alike, with great humor and gorgeous animation and a memorable and lovable pair of Disney characters. But in a strong year of good animated family films, it’s the music that sets Moana apart. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are infectious and inspiring and the music he creates with Mancina and Foa’i is instantly indelible. Without taking anything away from his collaborators, though, it is Miranda’s unmistakable voice that truly makes Moana’s music.
The phenomenon of Hamilton isn’t a fluke, and Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t just for Broadway. With Moana he arrives on an even bigger stage and owns that one, too. When his voice carries over the soundtrack, singing about exploring, it’s pure, unbridled joy, and the feeling that for all he has accomplished, Lin-Manuel Miranda is just getting started.