DIR: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, Chris Williams • WRI: Jared Bush • PRO: Osnat Shurer • ED: Jeff Draheim • DES: Ian Gooding • MUS: Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda • CAST: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House
Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Evidently such was the attitude of the writers behind Disney’s newest princess film (and yes, despite the main character’s protestations, she is a princess – it’s even a joke in the film), as visually stunning as it is narratively clichéd. That said, accusations of cultural appropriation aside, it is refreshing to see Disney stray beyond the realm of white European folklore and the film revels in exploring the rich mythology that lies at the core of Polynesian culture.
Unfortunately, one can’t help but feel that Disney utilises this fresh, new setting merely as a pretty cloak to cover its already established narrative framework. It may have a new skin, but the bones of the story are still the same – the smart and spunky princess who wants to defy social expectations and be true to herself, the animal sidekick, the wise-cracking friend/love interest, the wise elder, the perilous journey to retrieve a magical object, learning lesson about life on the way, etc. None of these are bad tropes per se, and Moana handles all of them very well, but there comes a point where it is no longer possible to praise Disney for producing the same story, yet again.
Moana, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is the sole daughter of the chief of Motunui Island, a position she herself is destined one day to overtake. Problem is, Moana feels a deep, instinctual urge to set out into the unknown waters beyond the reefs that surround her island, much to the consternation of her father. As fate would have it, the ocean chooses Moana to embark on a mission to find the once-adored, now-disgraced demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), in order to restore the stolen Heart of Te Fiti, a gemstone with the power to create new life, to its original resting place and thus save her home from destruction. Before Maui can help our feisty hero, however, he must first find his lost magical fish hook, an object bestowed onto him by the gods which grants the ability to shapeshift into any animal. Together the two face demonic coconut pirates, narcissistic monster crabs and each other as they set out across the ocean to meet their destinies.
Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Maui is energetic and well-balanced, making what could have been a highly annoying character extremely likeable, even endearing. Cravalho also does considerably well considering this is her first film, though Moana as a character is rather bland, if perfectly pleasant. Moana’s battle with self-identity versus her responsibilities as future chief, as mentioned before, have already been explored in prior Disney films with arguably more effective results. At least with their first Polynesian princess, Disney has continued the trend of moving away from plots centred on love interests, focusing instead on the equally important platonic and familial relationships that inform the character’s life.
The film’s soundtrack, partly penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, is solid and the songs help in moving the plot along nicely, though they lack the inherent catchiness of other Disney flicks – however, this might be a blessing in disguise for those poor parents who are entering their sixth year of Let it Go on loop.
Animation wise, Disney knocks it out of the park as usual. Large chunks of the film is spent on water, but it never once suffers from visual fatigue. Indeed, the ocean itself is a character and it is afforded all the personality and spark that could have benefited some of its human counterparts. A sequence with scene-stealing Jemaine Clement voicing a 50-foot bedazzled crab mixes things up nicely, contrasting the warm, earthy colours that dominate the film with cool neon and stark black. The attention to detail remains the thing that maintains Disney’s position as the animation studio that always delivers.
It’s impossible to leave Moana with anything other than a smile on your face. It looks great and it sounds great, it’s just a shame Disney’s over-reliance on traditional story-telling tropes prevents the whole from being as great as the sum of its parts.
PG (See IFCO for details)
Moana is released 2nd December 2016