OPINION: Comparing the 'Moana' Soundtrack to Past Disney Movies

Sam Reynolds ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 56th Animated Feature, Moana, has received widespread acclaim for breaking the conventional molds of the Disney Princess movie. Instead of the classic tropes, Moana centers around a strong-willed Polynesian teenager and her culture, following her quest to save her tribe from disaster. There are no love interests, no damsel in distress in need of rescue. Heck, she even takes offense when called princess. Thematically, Moana holds significance by expanding the possibilities of diversity in Disney’s notoriously whitewashed architecture.
Yet for all of its innovative qualities, Moana still rests securely within the classic Disney storytelling formula. It’s easy to identify plot points and themes that run parallel to other Disney movies, and it’s even easier to notice similarities when comparing soundtracks.
The company has created a blueprint for catchy songs that satisfy key plot points in their movies. Every song in Moana has the DNA of countless other Disney films coursing through each note, thus making comparisons all but inevitable.
Here, we look at how the soundtrack of Moana holds up in comparison to classic Disney tales by putting its songs side-by-side to those who have successfully fulfilled the same duties in the past.
The World Establishing Song:
Moana and the People of Motonui in Moana. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Moana’s Entry: “Where You Are”
What It’s Up Against:
“Belle” (Beauty and the Beast)
“One Jump Ahead” (Aladdin)
“Honor To Us All” (Mulan)
“When Will My Life Begin?” (Tangled)
World establishing songs are a difficult task to undertake. They introduce the audience to the film’s world and key players within the span of just a few minutes. Not only does the song need to reveal exposition and key content, it also needs to sound like and embody the world it is describing and set the tone for the rest of the story. It’s an art that Disney has made look easy throughout the years, and in many respects has mastered altogether.
“Where You Are”
Be satisfied with the environment you are in. Value and uphold traditions. You don’t need to wander far to find happiness. These are the ideals Moana’s father and the Island of Motunui sings about to convince Moana that she need not look to uncharted seas to find happiness.
In classic Disney fashion, Moana is dissatisfied with the cards she’s dealt. She craves adventure and wants more from life than what she’s always known. In this regard, “Where You Are” feels like more of the same. What separates this song from other Disney premises is that its message has a surprising amount of merit, and is more complex than the usual lament of a main character who doesn’t fit in. In real life, finding satisfaction in your current situation and appreciating what you you have is an important lesson to learn. This is all Moana’s family wants for her- to ensure her safety.
By the song’s end, Moana realizes the value in contributing to her community, embraces the value of tradition and taking on a leadership role. Unlike the other worlds a Disney princess inhabits, this song rejects typical Disney sexism. The island wants the strong-willed, female Moana to lead as chief. This song shows Moana’s struggle to find a healthy compromise between her personal desires and her role on the island. This surprisingly real scenario creates a more mature and complex dynamic for our hero than Disney counterparts have had in the past. In this regard, “Where You Are” is a refreshing change of pace that embodies classic Disney themes but with a modern twist.
The song itself is driven by tropical-sounding drums, tribal chants and acoustic strums; the sound of the song is new in the sense it introduces a culture foreign to other Disney films, but this quickly falls away to a standard peppy Disney tune. Though its melody is consistent in matching the upbeat tempo of the film’s score, this song is probably the least memorable of Moana’s offerings, and sounds like a standard Disney song by the end. Not a bad thing, just not particularly memorable.
So How Does It Compare?
Though “Where You Are” has new ideas, it is held down by the lack of risk in sound. It thrives on message and theme, but lacks the pure storytelling mastery of “Belle” or the sporadic humor and energy of “One Jump Ahead.” It is probably most comparable to Mulan’s “Honor To Us All,” in sound and theme. Even though Mulan tells the story of a main character being unable to adapt to or change a sexist society, it soars in melody and vocal talent, creating a memorable performance that has proven to last amongst fans for years, whereas “Where You Are” may struggle to hold its ground in years to come. The song falls to the bottom of the pack, just above Mandy Moore’s “When Will My Life Begin?” which is also a catchy piece of exposition bogged down by a conventional acoustic-pop sound.
Does It Hold Up?
Yes, but belongs at the bottom of the pack.
The Power Ballad:
Moana in Moana. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Moana’s Entry: “How Far I’ll Go”
What It’s Up Against:
“Part of Your World” (The Little Mermaid)                                                                              “Let It Go” (Frozen)
“Reflection” (Mulan)
“Just Around the Riverbend” (Pocahontas)
Of all the things Disney owns and has done throughout the century, the studio is perhaps most recognized for crafting memorable power ballads. Ever since The Little Mermaid (1989) grabbed audiences attention with “Part of Your World,” the company has understood the power and marketability of a show-stopping vocal display to connect to viewers of all ages. Disney’s best power ballads have gone on to become staples of generations and exemplify the company when it’s most progressive. Whether it is the adolescent yearning of “Part of Your World,” or the declaration of independence of “Let It Go,” Disney has proven that it knows how to capture the hearts of audiences through timeless displays of raw vocals. That being said, Moana obviously has a lot to live up to in this department. How does it fare among some of Disney’s most memorable material?
“How Far I’ll Go”
Incontestably, “How Far I’ll Go” is both a powerful piece of music and the film’s centerpiece (it has one and a half reprises to support that claim). On paper and in execution, the song has everything: an uplifting hook, emotional verses, clever lyricism (“See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me” is undeniably brilliant), and a compelling vocalist at its center. It will be played to death (and then some) by audiences for decades. But when compared to the ballads of the past, it’s unclear how well it can hold its own.
Let’s start by judging the songs message. In the story, Moana has finally summoned the courage to take a boat and sail it beyond the reef, into the unknown. The song captures her decision to follow her instinct and admit that though she understands the significance and appeal of her home island, she wants to explore the world beyond. This declaration of independence is always the main draw of a Disney film, and this song doesn’t do much to alter that formula.
The most refreshing thing about “How Far I’ll Go” is that it is performed by the immensely talented sixteen-year-old Auli’i Cravalho, who, for the first time, is the same age as the princess she’s portrayed. She does her best to make the song her own and clearly puts her all into the performance. One can almost hear Cravalho will herself to hit the power notes, which actually adds to Moana’s internal struggle. Cravalho clearly has a powerful voice and a bright future ahead, but it’s difficult to compare her performance to experienced titans such as Frozen’s Idina Menzel or The Little Mermaid’s Jodi Benson.
So How Does It Compare?
For all of its admirable qualities and likability, “How Far I’ll Go” cannot escape the inevitable shadow of “Let It Go.” Though it reaches for the same power of its predecessors, the young Cravalho cannot match the veterans of this field, and the song would benefit for trying a different approach in reaching their impact (look to the outtake “More” as an example). Though you can hear the struggle and longing in the vocals and lyrics, the songwriting simply isn’t as creative as the push and pull restraint of the genius “Part of Your World.” The vocals aren’t as world-exploding as “Let It Go” or “Reflection.” The pace isn’t as daring as “Just Around the Riverbend.” This song suffers, again, from safe and formulaic writing that feels more like going through the rotations then striving for something original.
Does it Hold Up?
Yes, but despite a fierce fight, it’s at the bottom of the barrel.
The Supporting Character Song:
Moana and Maui in Moana. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Moana’s Entry: “You’re Welcome”
What It’s Up Against:
“Friend Like Me” (Aladdin)                                                                                                 “Hakuna Matata” (The Lion King)                                                                                               “Be Our Guest” (Beauty and the Beast)                                                                                    “One Last Hope” (Hercules)                                                                                                           “In Summer” (Frozen)
The supporting character song has never been one that holds much significance to the story itself in a Disney film, but rather serves as a welcome detour that is used as comic relief (“Friend Like Me”), or simply a pivot to a fun topic to add some levity and distraction for a few minutes (“Be Our Guest”). These songs can occasionally be overlooked despite how important they are in breathing life into the film’s world, since it gives the viewer a chance to enjoy the experience and feel comfortable inside the story being presented. However, what really sells a supporting character song is what the voice actor brings to the performance.
“You’re Welcome”
When word of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s casting as Maui was announced, there seemed to be a collective sigh of disappointment. Not that anyone dislikes Johnson, but it seemed to be another example of Hollywood taking someone who doesn’t know how to sing and putting them in the spotlight and hoping for the best.
Thankfully, the former wrestler proves to be an infectious presence as both a voice actor and singer, and runs away with the entire movie with “You’re Welcome.” You can practically see the grin on Johnson’s face as he puts a ridiculous emphasis on the word “here” in the song’s opening line, and that grin only grows into a self-satisfied smile as Johnson goes on to list all of Maui’s achievements over a thumping beat and triumphant horns. What sells this song is Johnson’s use of his star power to embody the song and it’s cocky character, mustering all of his adorable likability, larger than life persona, and booming voice to achieve this end result. Just listen to the soaring chorus and how effortlessly joyful it sounds, disguising Maui’s obnoxious cockiness as a simple lust for life.
Let’s not forget the rap bridge near the song’s end, which brings the song to a satisfying close. This is a grand introduction of a character in the same vein as Robin Williams’ performance in Aladdin, as well as a joyous detour from the story that fans will be singing for years to come.
So How Does It Compare?
Johnson is able to transcend his character through his own persona the same way Robin Williams and Hercules’ Danny DeVito have done similarly in the past, and thanks to the brilliant songwriting, “You’re Welcome” is more comparable to the former. Though it is near impossible to match Robin Williams’ dizzying improv and manic comedy that makes “Friend Like Me” timeless, Johnson brings his own personal touch that makes a performance that is almost comparable to Williams, even if the divide is still significant.
At the end of the day, “You’re Welcome” probably falls just below the ranks of classics such as “Hakuna Matata” and “Be Our Guest,” for capably tapping into the same scene-stealing jubilance that elevates each film to levels of pure entertainment. This puts it above the endearing but not-as-memorable “One Last Hope,” and the blatant and shameless marketing attempt of Olaf that is “In Summer.”
Does It Hold Up?
With flying colors.

The Villain Song:

Tamatoa in Moana. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Moana’s Entry: “Shiny”
What It’s Up Against:
“Poor Unfortunate Souls” (The Little Mermaid)
“Be Prepared” (The Lion King)
“Gaston” (Beauty and the Beast)
“Friends On the Other Side” (The Princess and the Frog)                                                “Mother Knows Best” (Tangled)
The villain’s song can be seen as a sidestep from the rest of the story to give the antagonist time to reveal their vile qualities and intentions. Looking through villainous outings of the past, it became immediately notable how consistent Disney has been in crafting memorable and entertaining antagonist anthems. There is something immediately appealing about stepping into the dark side of a children’s movie, and following villains who exist simply to do evil things. Walt Disney Animation Studios seems to understand how to form delightfully sinister creatures, and the significance of encapsulating their character into a three minute song.
The closest thing that Moana has to a true antagonist is Tamatoa, a large crustacean, who resides in the Realm of Monsters below the sea. Similar to Maui, Tamatoa is a conceited creature, and is tricked into singing about his glamorous exterior. The result is “Shiny,” a ‘70’s Bowie tribute, in which Jemaine Clement simply relishes in his awfulness.
“Shiny’s” message is simple: who you are on the inside doesn’t matter as long as you look glamorous. It’s an interesting message for a villain because the song is meant to be an antithesis for the movie’s message. However, this song makes it clear that there’s nothing wrong with bragging about how good you look every once in awhile, especially when the outcome is as fun as this number. Though limited to a single scene, Clement is able to make the most of his screen time by mixing an extremely comical vocal performance with an imminent sense of danger behind every syllable, making Tamatoa a perfect blend of entertaining and unnerving.
This song’s dramatic bridge also serves as exposition for Maui’s tragic backstory, which is only hinted at but still fully felt. Tamatoa’s knowledge of this topic creates the sense that he is a powerful and ancient being. Shiny does a lot with a little, and is a worthy villain song considering it has almost no time to leave a mark yet manages to do so in an extraordinary fashion.
(It’s also worth noting that the song dares to rhyme the words “Maui” with “heinie,” which is equally as admirable as it is cringeworthy).
So How Does It Compare?
Unfortunately, “Shiny” is at somewhat of a disadvantage compared to past nefarious outings simply because Tamatoa is merely a lone obstacle for the heroes and not the main baddie as per usual. There is less material to work with to prove his wickedness than say, Ursula or Jafar. But as stated early, “Shiny” benefits from the audience not knowing Tamatoa’s full history, and uses the power of subtlety – a trait villain songs normally avoid like the plague – to hint at some sort of damaged and tragic past that has made him so superficial. Clement clearly delights in uttering each word as vilely as he can, though never is able to reach the same pure evilness of that makes the vocals of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” or “Be Prepared” so compelling. Instead, the song relies on humor, as seeing a giant crab revert back to a silly 70’s hook before doing something despicable is truly laugh-out-loud funny. Though it doesn’t shares much more in common with Pat Caroll’s or Jeremy Irons‘ songs, the simple comedy of the number actually makes it quite comparable to the giddiness of “Gaston,” another offbeat villain anthem that also flips classic Disney tropes on its head. Thus, “Shiny” deserves a rightful place in the middle of the pack, as it has made a lovingly evil impression on audience’s hearts.
Does It Hold Up?
Absolutely, smack in the middle.
Moana debuted in theaters on November 25th. Check out Emertainment Monthly’s review of Moana here!
Show More

One Comment

  1. Nice article but it’s sad to see songs from Hunchback of Notre Dame left out of the comparisons, especially the power ballad and villain songs. That movie and its amazing soundtrack are so often overlooked. “Hellfire” could certainly give “Shiny” a run for its money overall, I think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button