Following the sage advice of her kooky grandma (a la Pocahontas) princess Moana must leave the enclosed life she’s always known behind (a la Aladdin’s Jasmine) to return a mystic item to the mountain from whence it came (a la Lord of the Rings). Moana, for its great many strengths, falters bringing a truly original tale to the screen, running on the fumes of Disney movies past to craft a well-loved, good-natured and visually decadent, but still somewhat second-tier Disney Princess potboiler, to the big screen in eye-popping 3D.
Caring and sympathetic, Moana (voiced delightfully by newcomer and Oahu native Auli’i Cravalho) represents the future for her small Polynesian island. But while Moana has her eyes set on the horizon, her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) is more conservatively-minded. He sees life outside the reef as riddled with danger. And he’s right. Drawing from Pacific Island folklore, Moana is stuffed with fantastic beasts, creation myths, Gods an d anthropomorphized aqua. On the edges of their society, there be dragons. But no danger remains as pressing as the ecological one knocking on their front door that has started turning their coconuts – their chief food source – to rot.
From the very beginning, Moana introduces mythic legends and takes them as fact. Chief among these legends is that of demigod, trickster and shape-shifter Maui (voiced by the always delightful Dwayne Johnson) who a thousand years ago stole the heart of the sea, giving way to the slow proliferation of darkness throughout the region that now taken root in Moana’s homeland. When Moana recovers the magical jade stone, she must dredge up the long forgotten Maui to help set things straight and restore prosperity to the region. Sailing outside the reef is a potentially lethal chore for those without the proper know-how but Moana, armed with a stiff upper lip and a burning desire to save her people, embarks anyways.
With Hamilton prodigy Lin-Manuel Miranda helping compose the toe-tapping tunes, Moana features a wealth of ear-pleasing ditties. From Maui’s sardonic but bubble-gummy “You’re Welcome” to Tamatoa’s “Shiny” (Jemaine Clement donning the iconic “Bowie’s in Space” voice for what was to me the most amusing number of the film), Moana hits many high notes. Even if I was left wanting about ten times more Jemaine Clement.
But the real sensation of Moana is the confluence of its auditory euphoria to its masterfully rendered animation. The tropical backdrop makes for a rich palette of stunningly lush colors and dream vacation locales that you want to just sink into. The creature and character design is vivid and unique, with Polynesian artwork informing the look and feel of Moana to a great degree. On the screen, it’s paradise and with the quality 3D that Disney is known to deliver, Moana has no trouble engrossing the viewer in its gorgeous technicolor spectacle.
It’s no Zootopia or Kubo and the Two Strings (or Sausage Party for that matter) but Moana is a different breed of classical animated film. She’s a Disney princess. With some updates and some much-needed tweaks. Moana certainly isn’t the the first Disney princess and she won’t be the last and the film from John Musker and Ron Clements – the directorial team behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and The Princess and the Frog – and co-directors Chris Williams and Don Hall (Big Hero 6) is acutely aware of that fact. The result is not as over-the-top irreverent as say 22 Jump Street but it’s there, equipping a certain playfulness to Moana’s self-aware side.
When the independent Moana – who it’s worth noting is never driven by romantic desire – protests that she’s not a princess, Maui remarks, “You’re wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” It’s a funny bit but with that acknowledgement and acceptance of familiarity comes a great number of narrative tropes we’ve seen before, i.e. the animal sidekick. But with songs this impressively seductive and visual dressings this jaw-droppingly perfect, Moana’s semi-forgettable plot maneuverings are lost in the impending seafoam.
Also, the short that precedes it – “Inner Workings” from Leo Matsuda – is fucking lovely.
CONCLUSION: ‘Moana’ doesn’t really break new narrative ground for Disney – though the lack of a romantic angle is refreshing – but its hypnotic visuals, winning voice cast and catchy tunes make it a splashy family-friendly delight from start to finish.