Moana, Disney’s newest animated film brings together one of the most unique and powerfully talented musical teams since maybe The Lion King. Sure, the Disney musical has seen some amazing music from the recent Frozen and Tangled. But what we have here, is something so truly special and unique that we haven’t seen the likes of since Hans Zimmer, Elton John and Tim Rice came together to change a generation’s childhood forever.
Anytime you see Mark Mancina’s name on a score these days, it’s important to take notice. Mark has become extremely selective over which projects he works on at this point in his career, making sure his efforts and energy are focused on something truly special. With Mark on as the composer, we also have two amazing songwriters with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. That trio, that combination has come together to create a fabric of of musical storytelling that makes Moana one of the most special projects to come out of Disney Animation.
Moana follows the Disney storytelling formula for sure, but it feels unique to her story and to her character from the very start. Moana is next in line to become the village chief, but the island in which her village resides on is dying. She uncovers that a demigod named Maui, in an effort to bring glory, robbed the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti which instead brought death and danger, and forced her once voyaging ancestors to stop discovering the world around them. The film encompasses a large amount of Polynesian culture and mythology to bring this story to life, and you’re engrossed from the get go.
What makes the music so special, is that the score and songs truly work together. Now, try and remember any piece of score from Frozen, or even Tangled. The opening hymn for the logos doesn't count, nor does the kingdom dance from Tangled. Can’t really get your brain to think past “Let It Go” or “See The Light” can you? And this is no disrespect to Christophe Beck or Alan Menken. But it’s almost the norm for the score to take a backseat in Disney movies for the songs to shine. Now think of The Lion King, doesn't the stampede immediately pop to mind? Or Lebo M’s iconic vocals over the opening? Maybe when Simba climbs Pride Rock in the rain at the end? This is why Moana is special, it found a precious balance between score and song. Mark Mancina wasn't just the composer, he was a songwriter as well on this film. He was able to create a seamless stitching between the two (usually separated) worlds.
As a narrative, the music is simply rich with traditional vocals and instrumentation that really carries the story. On album form you might feel the short track times feel choppy, and don’t really flow as well. But in the film, when everything is connected, Moana becomes a spine-tingling, eye-watering musical adventure filled with soaring emotions. Mark was able to capture heart, thrills, danger, loss, hopelessness and driving strength into his score. The songs feel written of the characters and never feel like a pop ballad meant to sell as many records as you can. The songs never overshadow the score, yet they are still catchy enough to make this unmistakably a Disney film. Plus the direction from Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker show how important it is to have good storytellers at the helm.
Moana is truly special. Mark Mancina’s score is unmistakably his own, yet his collaboration with Lin-Manual Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i make both the score and songs of Moana iconic rather than the score taking a backseat for the songs to shine. This musical approach is something we haven’t seen since from Disney since Hans Zimmer, Elton John and Tim Rice gave us The Lion King, and that score won an Oscar. From the engaging prologue all the way to the thrillingly emotional climax, the score and songs are simply perfect in their execution and approach. Moana will be remembered as a Disney film that playfully dances along the lines of formulaic expectations. And then hits a home run by being a film that is not only visually and sonically breathtaking, but full of so much emotional heart.
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