Sometimes we have to look backward to move forward, and that’s especially true in the case of Moana, the latest animated feature by Disney. While ostensibly another iteration of Disney’s lucrative Princess franchise, Moana is more like the ocean that plays a supporting role in the film itself; it’s true nature can be found underneath the surface. It’s a film that honors tradition while simultaneously subverting it.
Moana herself (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the teenage daughter of her island nation’s chieftain, being groomed to take his place one day. However, she is instinctively drawn to the ocean and the world beyond it. When her island begins to slowly die bit by bit, Moana breaks her father’s rules against sailing past the reef on the island’s coast to track down the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), whose theft 1,000 years prior of a stone sacred to the creator goddess Te Fiti sparked the curse that is slowly eating Moana’s island away.
Hooray for exotic weapon proficiencies!
While not based on a specific legend or story, Moana bears all the hallmarks of one of Disney’s fairytale adaptations. Instead of falling in line with its predecessors, however, the film twists and bends the rules of the Disney canon to present a new, more progressive and dynamic version of that framework. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker are responsible for some of the brightest spots in the Disney animated film canon, including The Little Mermaid — the film that began the Disney Renaissance — and Aladdin, which broke the boundaries of how a character is voiced in Disney features.
It’s rather fitting, then, that Moana comes off as a perfect combination of those two classics, featuring a progressive new take on Disney tropes while highlighting several memorable and organic voice performances. With an economic script and a bare-minimum cast of characters that allows the film to unfold at its own pace, Moana feels almost like a reboot of the Disney Princess series, even if the title character herself objects to being called a princess in the first place. There is a fresh, vibrant energy to the film that rarely feels forced or contrived, even if several story beats are imminently and somewhat sadly predictable (you could set a clock to the Act 2 Inspirational Speeches in Disney films).
Although Grandmother does give good inspirational side-eye.
The vast majority of the film focuses solely on Moana and Maui, with only occasional glimpses of other characters like Moana’s family, and that’s perfectly fine because the two play off of each other beautifully. Moana’s plucky optimism and spirit of adventure are a counterpoint to Maui’s braggadocio and cynicism. Auli’i Cravalho does an excellent job as Moana, confident and expressive, easily holding her own against Dwayne Johnson, whose natural charisma is undiminished by his voice-only performance. Both characters’ flaws are on full display without apology; Maui is funny and charming, but he’s also a self-centered jerk while Moana is determined and hopeful but also too often lets her ambition cloud her judgment.
What the film sacrifices in cast size it more than makes up for in sheer visual pleasure. The wide vistas of the sapphire blue ocean are breathtaking, and the textures of everything from the water to the flowers to Moana and Maui’s hair are remarkably realistic without being uncanny. In many ways, the film feels like a 2-D Disney classic upgraded to a third dimension without losing any of its fluidity or expressiveness. A great deal of the film evokes the emotional grace and humor of Hayao Miyazaki, from an opening scene of the infant Moana interacting with a semi-sentient ocean to an encounter with a tribe of pirates that appear to be a cross between a goblin and a coconut and whose initial appearance brings to mind the kodama from Princess Mononoke.
Disneyland’s newest ride: Pirates of Piña Colada.
The music is as organic as the visuals, with the songs appearing at the appropriate moments and often coming across more as the sung dialogue of pop opera than the show-stoppers of traditional Disney musicals. Aside from Maui’s song “You’re Welcome” and “Shiny”, a Bowie-esque glam rocker sung by a giant crab voiced by Jemaine Clement, you get the impression that singing is just how people communicate their deepest emotions in this world. The songs form their own arc, with the lyrics of Moana’s “I want” song constantly being updated as she learns more about herself and what she needs to do. As written by Mark Mancia, Opetaia Foa’i, and some guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda, they echo the greatest of Menken and Ashman numbers while incorporating traditional Polynesian chants and instruments. It's conceivable that his work on this film could net Miranda the Oscar he needs for full PEGOT status.
One of the film’s biggest virtues is that nearly the entire cast of a film based on Polynesian folklore is made up actors who have Polynesian, Maori, or native Hawaiian heritage, giving the film a kind of intangible authenticity. The only exception to that would be Alan Tudyk, who provides the squawks and clucks to Moana’s chicken Heihei like a next-generation Frank Welker. Even Heihei itself is a subversion of Disney tradition by being a cute/ugly animal sidekick that not only doesn’t provide any meaningful help to the hero but in fact seems like the dumbest (yet endearing) animal to ever walk across a Disney screen.
Giving new meaning to the word “birdbrain.”
At one point, Maui tells Moana “If you’re wearing a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” But Moana is no Princess, and this is no Princess film. Moana isn’t defined by her quest for love, she never chafes against her responsibilities, and her wanderlust is based in helping her people and not in naivete or innocent selfishness. She’s a mature, kick-ass young woman who’s as refreshing and deep as the beautiful blue ocean she calls home.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+