If there’s an archetype that Disney is most known for, it’s the princess. Snow White, Cinderella Sleeping Beauty – these are the classics. In recent years we’ve added ones from Tangled and Frozen. The studio’s latest offering is Moana (voiced by Hawaiian teen Auli’i Cravalho). Ok so she’s actually the daughter of her tribe’s Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), not royalty as she herself points out for us, but she fits the princess mythology. The paradigm has always been loosely defined, but if the movie is a success, then she’s adopted into the tradition. If there’s any justice, this movie deserves to be a huge hit.
Moana is all about a quest. She hails from the fictional island of Motunui. Although that is indeed the name for a settlement in New Zealand, the location is set on an unspecified archipelago. This could be also Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii or any peninsula in the South Pacific. Moana is intrigued by the sea. However, her love for the oceans is sternly repressed by her father. The world is a dangerous and scary place he tells her. Those feelings are rooted in his own personal trauma. Yet we’ll discover, Moana’s longing has a basis in her cultural destiny. Her island is slowing declining. Crops are dying, coconuts are rotting, and fish are becoming scarce. According to legend, there’s a reason for this. Many years earlier, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. This was a glowing green, jade-like stone. The absence of Te Fiti’s heart will continue to bring hardship. So, inspired by her Grandma Tala (Rachel House) Moana sets out on a journey to find the ancient gem and restore her world to its original magnificence.
The leading ladies of Disney have undergone a personality overhaul over the past three decades beginning with Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The classic princesses have been criticized for being too simplistically innocent. On the other hand, the modern ones can be a bit self-centered in their rebellion against a repressive society. I know it’s technically Pixar (owned by Disney) but Merida from Brave actually turned her mother into a bear. She was downright mean. Yes, Moana rebels in predictable fashion too, but she feels a little different. For the first time in quite a while, she exudes more humility than I have seen from Disney’s recent heroines. Simply put, she is a nicer person. Additionally, she has no love interest. It’s lamentable that we’re at a point where even a minor deviation from the rigid princess blueprint is considered revolutionary but here we are. Moana is refreshingly different.
You’ve got a spunky, can-do explorer at the center of a bright shiny musical with a positive message. Moana may be set between 2000 and 3000 years ago, but she’s still a contemporary heroine tailor made for a 2016 audience. Whether it’s Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esméralda, Mulan or Tiana, Disney has included more ethnically diverse protagonists for quite some time now. This time the formula is gently tweaked to include a Polynesian setting and people. Moana isn’t tall and stick thin but she’s still attractive. Certainly an athletic type. Disney has yet to really get subversive and create a leading lady that doesn’t look like she could model. Legendary demigod Maui has a wildly expressive face and a giant physical presence when compared to Moana. The juxtaposition of her tiny physique with his massive frame is amusing. The art direction draws heavily from Samoan culture incorporating the architecture, statues, even body art. The adult characters sport tattoos. Maui even interacts with a figure on himself that pantomimes advice like his sidekick.
Moana finds Disney working very much within their wheelhouse. The production is immeasurably enhanced by songs written by Opetaia Foa’i of the New Zealand group Te Vaka, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway’s Hamilton fame, and American composer Mark Mancina (Disney’s Tarzan), who also composes the musical score. Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” is the obvious bid for a hit single in the vein of “Let It Go” from Frozen. However, there are many others that stand out. The Rock sings “You’re Welcome” and it’s instantly catchy. The tribal chant “We Know the Way”, partially sung in Tokelauan, is great too. Oh and “Shiny” sung by a villainous coconut crab named Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement) is completely unexpected – like early 70s era David Bowie. The music is great. I think the sheer number of memorable songs is higher than any of their animated features since perhaps the 90s.
Young girl wants to realize her destiny by breaking free from the strict confines of her society. We’ve seen the hero’s journey story before. It gently recycles elements of The Little Mermaid, Mulan and half a dozen other of their own creations. Even the way the chronicle presents fluctuating happy and sad events won’t surprise anyone over the age of 5. Moana and Maui’s rocky relationship are highlighted by ups and downs that I would warmly describe as haphazardly predicable . Yet the production is carried out in such a proficient manner that the appropriation is still incredibly entertaining. The soundtrack is filled with one transcendent song after another. The animation is vibrant and appealing. The evocation of paradise is stunningly beautiful. Even the water is a translucent character that protects our young hero. Her pets, a pig (Puanani Cravalho) and a rooster (Alan Tudyk), each provide wonderful comic relief. Moana happily employs an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ mentality that includes the sum total of what makes a Disney film entertaining. You want colorful animation, music, sidekicks, a comic villain, humor, a moral? Well how about an army cuddly cute coconut warriors? You get all that and more and it’s skillfully presented in an artistically appealing way.