Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
Plot: Daughter of a Chief, Moana has a fascination for the water, although her tribe strictly forbid voyaging. Then Moana discovers an ancient story that forces her to leave her home and restore a mythical stone.
Say what you want about Disney’s monopolising of the film industry, outside of the over-enthusiastic merchandising and the buying up of other franchises, when it comes to the actual creative side of their industry (ie: the animated Disney films), they are onto a good thing. Moana comes on the back of a long line of successful Disney movies, starting with Tangled that shook away the painful slump that the company was suffering with that accumulated in the block-busting Frozen. Sprinkle in the edgy Zootopia and the crowd-pleasing Big Hero 6 and you have a run that is beginning to look like Disney back in their glory days. This brings us to Moana.
And what makes Moana so important to the Disney canon is that it feels like Disney sinking into a warm bath, finally comfortable with itself. Cynics lining up Moana, Frozen and Zootopia might call Moana a dip back into mediocrity. There is something very linear about its story: a Disney female hero (I am not going to use the word Princess – that’s one debate this review is going to steer away from), goes on a quest involving a MacGuffin and passing through several episodic obstacles. You could even go as far as Disney cautiously falling back to the good, old days, in a desperate attempt to play it safe. However, Moana deserves far more credit than that. What Disney is proving with Moana is that it is perfectly able to keep this streak with consistent and constant successes. The growing worry with the likes of inventive entries like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 is that few of those ideas felt safe. Yes, they all worked out well – better than well some might say – but at the same time, those ideas could have easily gone the opposite way. Moana signals that Disney don’t always feel the need to constantly push and that there is nothing wrong with a simpler tale. In fact, the laidback nature of Moana also seems to give directors Ron Clements and John Musker the breathing space to focus their creativity into other areas. Like all the best Disney Princess tales (damnit – there’s that word!), they uproot a traditional tale and take it to the other part of the world. You might say that this is Disney trying to be inclusive – Princess and the Frog gave us a black Princess, Mulan gave us an Asian hero and Aladdin gave us a Middle-Eastern spin on a Disney tale. However, there is more to these stories than simply creating new role models. There is a sense that Disney are genuinely interested in different cultures and Moana is a proud celebration of Polynesian culture. Musker and Clements dive into the mythology surrounding this part of the world and give us a thrilling insight into the history of Maui, a Polynesian demigod. It isn’t just about the fantasy elements of Polynesia, but the cultural aspects too. The writers worked long and hard to get the story of Polynesia right – Maui’s appearance was constantly changed, based on market research, desperate to get an honest depiction of this important part of Polynesian culture. The story also takes great interest in how the people of Polynesia used to be great explorers, but now prefer to stay settled on their respective islands. While the answer is unknown historically, Moana’s writing team fills in the blanks. Otherwise, Moana is a truthful depiction of this culture.
Story in place and new culture found, Moana finds delight in sketching out the edges of the story with their usual Disney fine-tuning. Moana is a sheer visual delight, some of the best animation I have seen from a Disney picture. The simple animation of the water – which is written to be a supporting character in itself – is glorious, simply shifting, but impressive in its elegance. There is also cracking fun to be had in Maui’s tattoos, which dance around his body – again another clever twist on a supporting character – and tell parts of the story. The casting is on-point too, especially when it comes to Dwayne Johnson as the demigod. Again, casting Dwayne Johnson as the muscular, heroic Polynesian seems like it is playing it safe, but Johnson is far too animated to let the character slip into idleness. He is constantly cracking gags, mocking the image of a hero and – most impressively – bursting into song. ‘You’re Welcome’ marks one of those beautiful moments when you realise an actor you appreciate can actually hold a tune. Even before I watched Moana, that song was rattling around my head constantly. And it’s not just that one song, the film bursting with a whole bunch of worthy tunes to add to the Disney canon. All in all, Moana is a clean effort from Disney, definitely the safest film the company has made in a long while, but worth praise all the same. It marks a bright future for Disney and one I cannot wait to see unfold.
Final Verdict: Moana is a true delight to watch, beautifully animated and wonderfully told. Another Disney success.