Full disclosure: I haven't seen or heard Hamilton, so Disney's new Polynesian-set animated epic Moana is my first exposure to musical and lyrical genius Lin Manuel Miranda, who provides the songs along with Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina, the latter also doubling as score composer. With vocal tracks from Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock, Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords), and Moana herself Auli'i Cravalho, the film is Disney's latest attempt to topple the huge success of Frozen. Has it done it?
Yes, and no. Overall, it's a much more consistently enjoyable album, and Mancina's score corrects one of the big issues with Frozen; the songs were great but Christophe Beck's score failed to make any big connection. The score is big and powerful and sweeping and appropriately ethnic with the Polynesian influence, but it also hits emotionally, both on the obvious tracks like 'Tala's Death Bed' but also the more transitional pieces. Mancina has proved his worth in action music before for scores such as Speed and Bad Boys as well as Disney's earlier animated classic Tarzan, and cues like 'Great Escape' and 'Te Ka Attacks' prove once again that he knows to do these type of pieces with ease.
The songs are a very interesting prospect, and there's a lot of them, ten to be exact (not counting reprises). Across the board they range from decent to fantastic, with three particular highlights: 'How Far I'll Go' as sung by lead actress Cravalho, which is a wonderful tune that has an amazing reprise in 'I Am Moana'; 'Shiny', a Bowie-esque groove performed by Clement that sounds straight out of the Conchords; and, surprisingly, 'You're Welcome', a rollicking riff belted out by Johnson which will probably be the catchiest song you hear this year. By all accounts Johnson's Māui is the breakout character of the film and it doesn't surprise me from this track.
But there's one thing missing that Frozen still has over it: It doesn't have a showstopper like 'Let It Go'. Some may say that's a good thing, as that song has taken on a life of its own beyond the film, but it's also a brilliant character moment that defines not only the main character but also the issues of the film (namely depression). Of course, I haven't seen Moana so I don't know how the soundtrack works in context, but it doesn't have a song that has either the impact of 'Let It Go' or frankly the quality.
The final thing to say about Moana as a soundtrack is that it needs to be rearranged; Disney has done it no favours by presenting it in the usual style of songs followed by score. While I initially found the score a bit uninspired by itself, it was much more satisfying and emotionally connective when placed in the context of the other musical tracks. Moana is a great album with a very good score and some excellent songs, despite not having a showstopper, but for god's sake don't listen to it as it is on the album.
Moana is out now from Walt Disney Records
Here is a list of the tracks in chronological order, thanks to Carly from Hans-Zimmer.com
Tulou Tagaloa Prologue An Innocent Warrior Where You Are He Was You How Far I'll Go Village Crazy Lady Cavern We Know the Way The Ocean Chose You The Hook Tala's Deathbed How Far I'll Go (Reprise) You're Welcome Battle of Wills Kakamora Wayfinding Climbing Tamatoa's Lair Shiny Great Escape Logo Te Pate If I Were the Ocean Te Ka Attacks Maui Leaves Heartache Tala Returns I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors) Sails to Te Fiti Shiny Heart Know Who You Are Te Fiti Restored Hand of a God Voyager Tagaloa Toe Feiloa'i Navigating Home The Return to Voyaging We Know the Way (Reprise)