Moana is the daughter of a chief of an island nation, destined to one day be a chief herself. Her father keeps his people land-locked, afraid of the ocean and its violence. But Moana is called by the sea, and encouraged by her water-loving grandmother, she discovers that her ancestors were once voyagers who travelled the ocean in impressive “canoes” to find new islands to inhabit. With this in mind, she takes off on a self-taught sailing adventure to find the demi-god Maui and set things right for her ailing homeland.
Moana is a simpler story than Zootopia. It’s about a young woman who defies her father and follows her calling in order to be the leader and hero of her people. I’ve heard some people critique it as having less of a social message than the latter, but let’s remember that while Zootopia does have a subversive message about race, Moana is a Disney princess who happens to be a person of colour, and maybe that’s an even bolder statement about diversity than any bunny could hope to make. Moana, like Lilo & Stitch before it, should be celebrated for being a Hawaiian movie that actually features Hawaiian people (I’m looking at you, Aloha).
Moana looks incredible. The marine influences are everywhere, colourful and wonderfully animated. And the songs are an absolute delight. As you may know, the guy responsible for the raging success that is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is behind a lot of the lyrics and songs, but he shares credit with Opetaia Foa’i who provides a necessary and flavourful injection of Hawaiian influence that make Moana’s music distinctive and familiar. While perhaps not instantly hummable by 5 year olds the way Frozen was, I think Moana is a step up in terms of Disney’s musical ventures. Jemaine Clement, playing a oversized crab, sings a song called Shiny which sounds an awful lot like something Flight of the Conchords would have done, though it is indeed written by Miranda (and performed with a David Bowie flair by Clement). And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the little girl (14 at the time of recording) who voices Moana herself, Auli’i Cravalho, who has a powerhouse of a voice, rich and full, and sounds authentic in the role too. I’m very glad to report that Disney cast this movie using a plethora of Polynesian performers, and it really pays off.
Moana is a bit feminist in terms of Disney films: female wayfinders would have been extremely rare in the Polynesian culture since navigators typically read the swells of the ocean by sitting cross-legged on the bottom of their boat to feel the movement of the ocean in their balls. In the movie, she learns to read currents and measure the stars from the demi-god Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson. The animators do a really great job of bringing a few identifiable Johnson traits into Maui’s features, and Miranda carefully crafted a song that he could sing successfully, without having a traditional talent for singing (“You’re Welcome” is a heck of a song!). Maui’s body is covered in tattoos that represent acts of heroism, or particular challenges that he’s overcome. Unlike the rest of the computer-animated film, his tattoos are hand-drawn, and add an extra layer of fun to the story, as well as acting as his moral compass. Maui often pokes fun at Moana’s insistence that she is “not a princess”, a self-aware bit of humour from a studio known for relying on certain formulas.
There’s a lot to like in Moana: she’s a plucky, courageous self-starter surrounded by a lush and magical world on which to feast your eyes. There’s even a tribute of sorts to Mad Max: Fury Road, if Imorten Joe’s army had been a lovely bunch of coconuts. That sounds odd, or impossible, but trust me. Moana doesn’t hold on to you the way a great movie might, but it’s sure to win over audiences this holiday season, and there’s not likely to be a better way to spend two hours with your family.
[Moana is preceded by a fun and vivacious Disney short called Inner Workings. It’ll remind you a little bit of Inside Out since it’s about one man’s struggle between head and heart. Inside Out was accompanied by a short called Lava, about an island volcano. Synergy! Read more about Inner Workings here.]