Once again Disney successfully warms the heart, cleanses the soul and makes you feel better about this miserable world for a brief, flickering moment. Moana certainly does not hit the soaring heights of Disney’s bete noir of the year, Zootropolis – a stellar homage to cop movies from the 1970’s and 80’s – but its still fantastic fun and a wonderful story which demonstrates Disney’s continued commitment to making up for its rather chequered history of racism and sexism.
Or at least its trying to. Disney’s latest production, inspired by the mythology and folklore of Polynesian culture has still attracted its fair share of flack. The depiction of demigod Maui (portrayed by Dwayne Johnson) has provoked criticism for stereotyping Pacific-Islanders as overweight. Personally, I don’t think that was their intention as I felt Maui came across as beyond human and a powerful superhero. Nevertheless, releasing a ridiculous costume was the worst kind of unconscious bigotry from Disney but I will leave a complex and nuanced debate to be guided by far more qualified academics and people of Polynesian heritage.
The plot centers on Moana (wonderfully voiced by Auli’I Cravalho), groomed to be the future leader of her people but decides to go against her father’s wishes by sailing beyond the reef to save her home from an ecological disaster. Along the way, she meets demigod Maui, who may not be as magnificent as he claims as she contends with fulfilling her great task given to her by the ocean itself.
As a visual story, Moana is a treat on the eye. The film’s stunning vistas, beautiful creatures and its magical color palette has once again demonstrated that Disney continue to advance computer animation at a staggering pace. John Musker and Ron Clements breathe genuine life into the animation which makes it beautiful, particularly in the case of the sea, which becomes a character aiding Moana along the way.
The story itself is nothing groundbreaking, in fact its very typical of modern Disney. With a princess (of sorts) seeking to break the chains of her predetermined role, in this case by voyaging the seas. The film, in one of several odd moments even acknowledges this itself, “You’re in a dress and you’ve got an animal sidekick; you’re a princess.”
Nevertheless, this is a princess who is not going to sit around in a gigantic, ostentatious house waiting for a man to run in and save her. Moana is determined to step up and be the leader she has told she is destined to be. Similarities to the story arc of Frozen are expected, warranted and in this regard, welcome as Disney continues to create iconic heroines for children to get behind. There is a genuine sense of independence to Moana comparable to Alice in Alice Through the Looking Glass, who is very much capable of striking out on her own and saving herself.
Much like Frozen there is also a terrific soundtrack, crafted by Mark Mancina, Hamilton writer Lin-Manuel Miranda and Te Vaka member, Opetaia Foa’i. The lyrics are a mixture of English and Tokelauan which, are simple, beautiful and paired with Mancinia’s soaring and bombastic score create powerful and memorable songs which at time can overwhelm you emotionally. In the best possible way.
Is it Zootropolis? Not quite, but that’s no insult. That film hit such a high watermark it won’t be met again for a long time. Moana is still a charming and engaging story that will leave a smile on the faces of even the most miserly member of the family.