Moana is the latest from Disney Animation, making yet another addition into their lucrative Disney Princess line. Though, it’s a meaningless label since Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is no “princess,” in fact, she is lining up to be the next chief in her Polynesian island, Motunui, which is what her father, Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), wants to see her achieve. But – stop me, if you heard this – she believes that she is destined for something greater and doesn’t want to limit her potential by the expectations of her family. What Moana truly wants to do is go out at sea, and be the one who will find the demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and reunite the heart of Tehiti – which is like this glowing, magical stone, there’s a whole backstory to this, I’m not gonna get into that right now.
One of the things that makes Moana interesting is that it’s remarkably self-aware. Not just in the that is bring it’s own twists to Disney tropes, but in how it actively calls itself on it. Moana’s grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), is the one who always encourages her to follow her dreams, and tells her stories about the legends of Maui and other various myths. She also never truly tells Moana everything she needs to know, forcing her to figure things out for herself, she responds to Moana’s frustrations by saying, “I’m the village crazy lady. That’s my job.” There is even a point when Moana finally meets Maui, and he mistakenly calls her a princess, but when she denies it, he says, “If you wear a pretty dress, and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” The animal sidekick in question is Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), Moana’s rooster, who is so dumb, I almost feel bad laughing at it.
There are numerous small touches in Moana that shows that the filmmakers are aware of what they’re doing and are going out of their way to bring something new to the table. And considering that the directing duo of Ron Clements & John Musker’s filmography include The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog, it’s no surprise that they have gravitated toward this material, which brings fresh ideas and visuals to a very familiar framework.
What I resonated with was the unabashed love of adventure and exploration. It totally nails that feeling of being stuck in an environment and having that urge to go out and discover new things. This is what makes Moana so effortlessly likable in her pursuits to help her people in a way that she believes is right, even if her family might disapprove – and this is despite the fact that there is oncoming danger which they are ignoring. It’s all about making the tough choices that nobody else is willing to face, even if you aren’t fully prepared for it. And it all culminates into a finale that is among the most thoughtful and mature endings that I’ve seen from Disney, it’s profoundly special and hopeful, and it will no doubt resonate with a lot of people.
Like any classic Disney film, there are a load of songs throughout Moana. Unfortunately, I can’t really say there is any big showstopper that comes close to the effect that “Let it Go” had with Frozen. Doesn’t mean that the songs are bad, in fact, they are all consistently really good. They’re written by Opetaia Foa’i, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Mark Mancina (who also does the score). The songs have a certain energy and attitude that reflects the fast and irreverent tone of the characters and the story. And unlike Frozen, it doesn’t unload a majority of the songs in the first half, Moana has a really good balance.
I think it’s great that Disney has been going out of its way to diversify their lineup and not strictly adhere to the more reductive tropes such as the needless romance subplot. After film like Frozen, Big Hero 6, Moana makes a nice addition to that diversity. However, it’s a shame that the same diversity doesn’t seem to be found behind the scenes. Within the various director, writing and producing credits, all but two are white men. The producer, Osnat Shurer, and one of the many people given a story credit, Pamela Ribon, are white women. Also, a vast majority of the cast are not even close to being of Polynesian descent. But hey – baby steps. We’re going in the right direction, and I’m hoping Disney continues with this.
Moana is a total delight. It fits right in among the very best of the modern Disney Renaissance. I don’t think it will blow any minds, but it works incredibly well where it counts. It has a great sense of humor, interesting, well-realized characters, and a joyous sense of adventure. It also has some of the best directed action that I’ve seen in a Disney animated movie, there’s a boat battle that almost feels like a cross between Waterworld and Mad Max: Fury Road, trust me, it’s really cool. It’s easily among the best animated films to come out this year, and I think it has a lot of staying power. Oh, and it’s way better than the mediocrity that is Zootopia. Now, excuse me while I run for cover. 80/100