Moana, Disney’s newest heroine, has a triumphant song about her struggle between the obligations of her family history and her own desire to explore the oceans.
In one of the film’s best moments, she learns that these ideals are not mutually exclusive, that following her path can also honor her ancestors. This statement applies to both Moana, the person, and Moana, the film. This movie represents the next evolution in Lassetter-led Disney Animation’s mandate to change the rules of Princess-dom set by their predecessors. It follows some familiar plot beats and character elements, but follows a tight storytelling schedule which has no use for frivolous details.
Moana, played by teenage actress Auli’i Cravalho, is a young girl set to inherit the position of Chief over her isolated Pacific Island village but, like many Disney protagonists, can’t shake the feeling that she is meant to explore something more. When an ancient island curse accidentally set in motion by the exiled shape-shifting demigod Maui (played by a fast-talking, irrepressibly charming Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) threatens to destroy her island’s way of life, Moana is called into action as the “chosen one” of the ocean incarnate. With requisite animal sidekick in tow, Moana sets off to sail across the ocean to find Maui and convince him to accompany her, returning the sacred relic he once stole and ending the curse.
Moana mostly runs at a fast pace, keeping the story moving along and squeezing in its “trials of three” without wasting too much time and boring the younger members of the audience. In some regards this hurts the film; Maui’s arc in particular feels slightly forced and glossed over. (A reprise of his incredibly catchy tune “You’re Welcome” at a critical point in the film may have gone a long way in preventing this.) But for the most part, it works well. There’s always something happening in Moana, and the film enraptures the audience in this island world with stunning visuals and an overall warm tone which keeps you from noticing the passage of time.
This works best on the handful of moments when the film decides to slow things down. Moana’s “call to action” moment takes place in a near-literal cave of memories with art and sound design meant to capture the attention of even the squirmiest child. This, and the film’s genuinely surprising climax, are some of the only moments in which the film isn’t bright and shiny and warm. This is a visual cue, a signal that “something serious is happening”, and they work with a quiet intensity, a sort of urgency.
Moana deals in familiar plot beats — a spunky heroine must prove herself against a cynical, world-weary hero — but it does so in such a contemporary and fresh manner that the material never feels dated.
Part of this is the obvious: A fresh and often underrepresented cultural perspective changes the dynamic of the film greatly. (I’d like to note the clear effort which went into portraying Pacific Islander culture as accurately and respectfully as possible, including accurate representations of cultural signifiers such as dances, drums, and tattooing.) But Moana also comes to us as a fully-realized character who mostly has internal conflict. You could make the case that this actually robs her of development, as her arc basically allows her to be a responsible leader on the island then be a responsible leader off the island. However, it’s nice to see her strength be immediately recognized, rather than have to be built while garnering others’ approval.
But more than that, this film represents a sort of merging of two Disney generations. There are four directors listed here, two from each Disney Renaissance: Ron Clements & John Musker, who brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog, are paired alongside Bolt and Big Hero 6 creators Don Hall and Chris Williams. This merging of the modern and the (recent) past is reflective in Moana’s production and storyline. We’re treated to Mad Max-inspired pirate battles and glam-rock Crab monsters (voiced by Jemaine Clement) while still being wrapped in the familiarity of the Disney formula, albeit with a little self-awareness. (Maui and Moana even argue over whether or not she counts as a princess.)
Moana continues Disney Animation’s quality resurgence, but releasing it in the same year of the extra-creative Zootopia makes me wish for a bit more of a departure from the norm. “This one doesn’t have a love interest” only represents the removal of something from the methodology, but nothing interesting is inserted in its place. But maybe this doesn’t matter, because the formula works. Inventive visuals and Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned songs elevate the already-good basis of the film, and the movie does what it sets out to do: It entertains, it pulls a little at the heartstrings, it gives very silly moments with the help of an animal sidekick. It’s not dismissive to say “Moana is little more than a princess movie” because it rightfully celebrates the “princess movie” moniker while striving to do just a little more than that. And that’s just what it accomplishes.
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