About halfway through Disney’s latest epic animated adventure Moana (2016), Dwayne Johnson’s cocky demi-god Maui quips; “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” The moment is unabashedly tongue-in-cheek for the house of mouse studio, who, ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), have built a global juggernaut status around women being the homemaker, saved by the kiss of a beautiful man. Showing just how far they’ve come, the film’s stubborn and strong-willed protagonist is quick to set the record straight that she is not, in fact, a Polynesian princess, but rather Moana of Motunui, the daughter of the village chief. The distinction is an important one and something that defines the rest of the magical and moving 100-minute journey. As by reshaping their once stringent parameters rather than destroying them completely, the studio craftily creates what could easily be their best film to date.
Drawing on familiar notes of Disney princesses of old, Moana follows a young girl trapped on an island where nobody leaves, imbued with dreams of a bigger and better life. Longing to set sail on the sea, when her island begins to darken and die, Moana’s grandmother tasks her with finding the famed demi-god Maui to make him return the heart of Te Fiti, the mythical Mother Earth goddess. Like those before her, she finds it is no easy task, with the plucky protagonist forced to battle the cute coconut Kakamora pirates, a giant self-absorbed crab and a monster of volcanic proportions, all while plagued with a pretty big case of identity crisis. To offset some of this despair, Moana is aided in her quest by a comical animal companion, her somewhat stupid and clumsy chicken Hei Hei. While Disney-verse sidekicks usually provide help and assistance, Hei Hei bucks the trend with his continual near-death experiences, which would be rather alarming if they weren’t so hilarious, thus making for a refreshing and un-formulaic experience. Adding to the reinvigorated feel is the lack of romantic interests, instead providing us the selfish yet redeemable mentor Maui to assist Moana’s character progression.
With destiny at the film’s forefront and bravado in Moana’s soul, it is hard to argue that our hero’s journey bears significant difference to those that have come before. When looking at the smaller intricacies employed however, including the visuals utilised, it is well and truly in a league of its own. Whether it is the ultra-realistic glisten of the ocean or the trippy The Road to El Dorado (2000) nature of Maui’s solo song, the film frames itself as an incredible piece. Co-director’s Jon Musker and Ron Clements’ years of experience are clearly on show, as they enhance the familiar hand drawn imagery with the endless possibilities the latest CG technology presents. A film set almost entirely on the open ocean can easily become tedious, so it is a testament to the animators that even the smallest movements and motions ebb and flow rather than stagnate. Best of all, the briny deep becomes an entity all of its own here, saving Moana and her pet chicken countless times and reminding us there is a moral to be learned about respecting the climate we call home.
That respect translates to the Polynesian culture at the heart of the film too, from the lush tropical wilderness, to the coconuts and tribal tattoos that abound. Drawing on the teachings and traditions of her ancestors, as Mulan and Pocahontas did before her, Moana reminds us that we should be proud of our heritage no matter what that is. Stereotypes be damned, we are told to embrace and celebrate culture, not hide from it. Bearing curves to kill for and beautiful tanned skin, Moana is a strong-willed, stubborn and true leader, never afraid to give up. Best of all, such a role is treated like nothing out of the ordinary, represented in the moment her father Chief Tui speaks of their village’s patriarchic history, yet never blinks in mentioning her as the obvious successor. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho imbues the character with her own Hawaiian history and effortlessly ensures her bumbling nature, innocent dreams and youth are instantly likable. With her maturity and kindness, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are big things in that kid’s future, be it in show business or not.
Turning to the music, Lin Manuel Miranda ups the ante once more here after his incredible run with the hit-musical Hamilton, alongside fellow composers and craftsmen Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. Their songs are fresh, summery and downright catchy, imbuing each line with the sea-breeze and a strong heart. From Dwayne Johnson’s jazzy show-tune You’re Welcome, to the more sombre moments of Know Who You Are, viewers will feel as natural an affinity with the melodies as Moana does with the sea. Then there’s the powerhouse piece How Far I’ll Go, which rolls and breaks into the resounding I am Moana, with both pieces bound to resound with anyone who has ever lived by the ocean. Music is the soul of such movies and ever since Let it Go became the pop-culture phenomenon it did, we have been waiting for a new film to challenge its stance. I’m proud to say, any of the pieces here provide just as strong a message and they do it in a far less annoying way.
While many viewers will likely expect to leave the theatre drawing comparisons between this and Disney’s other delights, the real joy is in how this addition never shies away from its forbear’s problems, but embraces them to become better. While no-one may remember how Brave (2012) paved the way for a more relaxed and independent Disney princess, there should be no doubt in the knowledge that Moana will go down in the history books as the one that helped such an idea become mainstream. A worthy addition to Disney’s ever-expanding gallery of magical movies, it reminds us to find our calling inside ourselves and trust that we are worthy of it. And maybe, just maybe, if you listen to that voice inside you, one day you’ll know, how far you’ll go.
Rating: 4 Clumsy Chickens out of 5
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