Disney animation again. Having already garnered plenty of critical praise and commercial success with Zootropolis earlier this year, which I thoroughly enjoyed, they’re back to slightly more traditional fare with Moana: a young Princess going on a mission to save her world. Well, daughter of the Chief, if not a princess.
But Moana promised to be something a bit more. The directorial duo are the same people who tried, and largely failed, to bring POC to the Disney Princess realm with The Princess And The Frog, but now they are trying again with gusto. A female lead, a big star male supporter, a unique backdrop, and man of the hour Lin-Manuel Miranda lending on hand on the musical side of things. There were a lot of things I liked about Moana before I went in to see it. Did it meet those expectations, or flounder as its 2D animated predecessor unfortunately did?
Young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) dreams of a life beyond the shores of her idyllic Pacific island, where she is being groomed to take over from her Chieftain father (Temuera Morrison). When darkness and sickness begin to encroach across the land, Moana takes her chance, embarking on a quest to find the demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) so that he can restore a precious jewel back to where he first stole it
In many ways Moana is as basic as they come. You can see the “Crossing The Threshold” moment as clear as you will see the “All Is Lost” moment. Disney is taking no chances with its narrative structure here, which is pretty much par for the course I suppose: you could probably line Moana up with something as seemingly different as Zootropolis and see the similarities. But in other ways, important ways, Moana is taking this kind of Disney tale in a bright new direction, and it’s that which makes Moana worthy of adulation, a top class Disney effort with characters entirely outside of the white male type (even if not all the cast is, eh Alan Tudyk?).
Moana herself is the driving force, the shining star. The film lets us see her from baby to stepping into womanhood, verging between the two extremes of having responsibilities at home and desires to be abroad. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with her just a little bit, as she plays with the sentient ocean on the shores of her island, before she transforms into the bright young woman dying to make her mark later on. She encapsulates the mature and vibrant exploration of the films central question: Should you try to find happiness where you are, or should you instead follow what you love? Or can you walk a middle path, and be yourself while being extraordinary? Cravalho voices Moana for the majority, and she nails the right tone and tenor throughout.
Moana is put next to Johnson’s Maui, the arrogant, brash and altoghter endearing demi-God, who is all about pleasing the adoring masses as long as he doesn’t put himself into too much peril in the process. His character journey is a predictable enough one, but this is more than made up for with the pep and oomph of Johnson’s performance, skilfully combing the twin necessitaties of constant comic relief in his interactions with Moana and the need for the character to be the traditional action hero at other times (inverted nicely by the end). If Moana is about trying to find where she fits in the universe, then Maui’s tale is a great exploration of how you can’t find happiness within yourself if you are constantly trying to please others: somehow, Moana manages to pull this all off.
It takes a first act for the two to get together, though it is hardly wasted time, with Morrison’s Chieftain and Rachel House’s grandmother providing plenty of notable moments, and the films soundtrack going into overdrive. But once they do get together, Moana takes off as a fantastical heroes journey across the seas, calling to mind things as varied as Sinbad and The Windwaker as Chieftain’s daughter and demi-God encounter coconut pygmy warriors (an amazing satirical take-on of Mad Max: Fury Road), show-stealing singing crabs (Jermaine Clement giving it socks) and terrifying lava monsters. The beats of the narrative are easy to see coming, but Moana actually inverts things rather smartly in its resolution, with a refreshing plot-twist in its primary antagonist that speaks to issues of perception, environmental destruction and the balance of nature.
The film expertly meshes the comedy and the drama, far better than other films have done so lately of the superhero type. Maybe it’s just that there are less one-liners and cut-aways: when Moana wants to get silly, it just gets silly, such as with the Alan Tudyk voiced chicken, and when it wants to get a bit clever, it gets clever, such as with the crab’s song, and if it wants to get recurring or physical, we have Moana getting throw into the ocean time and time again, which never actually gets old. But the serious side of things gets its just time too: conversations between daughter and granddaughter are heavy with meaning, and the way that the screenplay builds this universe – from the chieftains putting a slab of rock on the top of the mountain to raise it higher to Maui’s heartbreaking description of his origins – is great to enjoy.
It should also go without saying that the film looks great, even if the male side of the cast is depicted in singularly unrealistic terms: theres still a wonderful array of oceanic colour and Pacific greens to enjoy, intermingled with dark and scary looks at terrifying lava beasts and twisted monsters of the deep. But Moana is at its visual best when it mixes the 3D with 2D background stuff, most notably in some great song sequences.
And there is the music too of course. Where to start with the gushing praise on that? The wonderfully brash “You’re Welcome” that Johnson leads with? Moana’s defiant “How Far I’ll Go”? Jermaine Clement’s “Shiny”, one of the more inventive villain songs of recent times? Or perhaps Moana’s real set-piece, the Lin-Manual Miranda led “We Know The Way” a Pacific Islander inspired joy-fest that gives tribute to the adventurous spirit of the people depicted? Either way, it’s all good, and the score is there to match it all. I suppose this is Disney’s bread and butter, but there are tunes here that are more than a match for the stuff that was so catchy in Frozen.
Moana is another Disney triumph to add to the pile: there seems to be no end to the companies ability to stay relevant and fresh. Even as the barrage of live-action remakes of their older canon continues, they still manages to come up with the goods, sometimes twice a year. Here, they’ve managed to blend a fascinating setting, some great characters, heart-warming humour, serious drama, an excellent score and Disney’s requisite great animation with a by the books story for an end product that is really up there with some of the better films of the year. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).