Over the last few years Disney has been trying to reinvent what it means to be a Disney princess. Tiana in Princess and the Frog was the first black Disney princess, Merida in Brave was a more action focussed heroine with a plot that relied on her avoiding romance and marriage, and Frozen has become a popular culture phenomenon. All have their good points and their own identities. Moana is the latest effort to shake things up and it just might have everything that Disney need to have a strong and well made film that children can connect to.
Moana (Auli’i Cavalho) has lived her entire life on her home island and has a fascination with the world of the endless ocean just beyond the horizon. As the daughter of the chief (Temuera Morrison) she is expected to lead her people and remain where she is, but her grandmother (Rachel House) encourages Moana’s wandering dreams. When a terrible darkness threatens the island, Moana must journey by herself to find the trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) so that they can return a sacred treasure that he stole and restore life back to the world.
This is just a joyous movie, full of the spirit of adventure and character and heart that we expect from Disney at its best. The Polynesian environments are just gorgeous, this world is detailed, sweeping, and the kind of thing that Disney really hasn’t attempted before.
Moana herself is a very likable heroine. She is a caring, clever, excitable, wander-lust filled young woman torn between her life on the island leading her people and the unknowable force calling her to the water. She isn’t perfect; she misjudges things and has doubts, and in all is a very nicely rounded character and a big shoutout to Auli’i Cavalho for the performance, as it’s hard to balance some of those things for a veteran voice actor, and she has done so wonderfully in her first ever role. You are absolutely with her on this adventure that involves coconut pirates, a lava demon, and a massive blinged-out crab voiced by Jermaine Clement in a random but fun interlude.
Dwayne Johnson’s Maui is an initially curious factor, being setup as something of a selfish comical strongman, but he has some great moments and nice nuances we uncover as the film goes on. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but a very solid supporting role.
The message of Moana’s story also ends in a really nice place of compromise between responsibility and expectation, and the driving need to journey and adventure. It says that it is possible to do both what you want to do and what you need to do as you find yourself. Balance rather than picking one thing or another.
One of the most potentially exciting things about Moana going in is the music, with songs co-written by Lin Manuel Miranda, the singer-songwriter best known for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. He works alongside Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, who also scores the film. Unsurprisingly the songs are great; does it have that showstopper your kids will be singing in the car until you want to throw the CD out the window? Maybe not, but they do a great job of building on the characters and story. A couple of moments may even give you chills.
If I had to fault anything, I would say that there are moments and beats that don’t quite land right, but no more than any other children’s film. Also, why have the stupid and slightly annoying chicken as an animal companion when there is an adorable pig right there? Always go for the adorable pig.
Moana is about as good as Disney gets; it’s fun and funny with a great central character and artwork that is full of colour and life.