Disney sets sail in the South Seas with a mythical new toon
Directed by Ron Clements & Don Hall, John Musker & Chris Williams
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
The tendency when viewing a new Disney animated film is to—fairly or unfairly—compare it to various time periods in the company’s history. Over the decades we’ve had the early classical period (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi), the late classical period (Robin Hood, The Aristocats), the transitional period (The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective), the revival period (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), the Pixar period (Up, Inside Out) and so on. Each epoch has had its ups and downs, and everyone has their own personal favorites. But viewers more or less knows the highlights (Bambi) and lowlights (Bambi II). So if we had to categorize it at the offset, Disney’s sunny new computer-animated offering Moana would sit comfortably alongside 1989’s bright, boisterous and much beloved The Little Mermaid.
Having raided German, Greek, Nordic and Japanese fairy tales for inspiration, Disney now turns to Polynesian mythology as the spark for its latest tale of plucky princesses on brave quests. Though it fits well in the tradition of past Disney offerings, Moana does some very interesting things. Its not as much of a rule-breaker as the company’s last South Seas adventure (2002’s brilliantly bratty Lilo & Stitch), but it playfully tweaks audience expectations creating a fresh and original tale.
Moana is the name of our protagonist (voiced by Hawaiian-born actress Auli’i Cravalho). She’s the daughter of an island chieftain whose ancient people long ago gave up their seafaring ways and settled down on a perfect island paradise. Unfortunately, an evil plague is creeping across the ocean, snuffing out sea life and endangering Moana’s people. This plague was touched off a thousand years ago when the legendary demigod Maui stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, hoping to give its creative power to the nascent human race. Unfortunately, this godly transgression unleashed the lava demon Te Ka, whose black influence is slowly but surely killing islands across the Pacific.
Moana takes its time building its characters. It’s not in a rush to get to the razzle-dazzle CGI action. Instead, we watch and listen as Moana grows up, isolated on her island paradise of Motunui. She hears the call of the ocean and longs to sail on its surface, but her father preaches about the dangers of the sea, preferring to stay safe and hidden. Unfortunately, Te Ka’s corruption eventually touches Motunui. Coconut trees die off and fish become scarce. Against her father’s wishes, Moana steals a boat and heads out into the sea, hoping to find the legendary Maui and convince him to return the heart of Te Fiti.
Of course, our plucky heroine eventually locates the egotistical half-god (played with brio by wrestlin’ thespian Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). The two engage in a string of waterborne adventures before inevitably confronting the evil Te Ka.
Like The Little Mermaid, Moana is an unapologetic musical which moves the story forward though exposition-filled songs. The songs here are written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame), Opetaia Foa’i (of the Oceanic music group Te Vaka) and longtime Hollywood composer Mark Alan Mancina. It’s unlikely that any of the songs showcased here will become earworms on the magnitude of Frozen’s “Let It Go,” but they’re all solid, hummable contributions.
Disney has been a bit more sensitive lately to cultural issues. (The company took a few hits after Mulan.) Though this sort of package will always see complaints about exploiting the exotic, filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to work with actors, musicians, historians and anthropologists from across Polynesia to ensure the accuracy and sensitivity of the cultural and religious issues at hand. The cast (consisting of many pan-Pacific actors) is delightful. Cravalho as the stubborn young gal and Johnson as the boastful hero have a great back-and-forth. Jemaine Clement, from New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords, drops by to deliver a showstopping number as a treasure-hungry giant crab.
Storywise, Moana sets sail in some interesting directions as well. Though she is the daughter of a great chief, Moana bristles at the idea of being called a princess. (There’s even a solid joke about this very topic.) This may also be the first “Disney Princess” movie in which the princess has no love interest of any kind. Our protagonist is smart and full of spark (something that’s been the standard since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast), but this gal has more important things to do than moon over non-sexually threatening boys. Also, the villain is handled in a way I haven’t seen before in a Disney film. This one’s more about the idea of healing and fixing things that have been made wrong than about fighting monsters and making things explode.
Really, there’s little more you could ask of Disney’s Moana. It’s bright, tuneful, entertaining and assembled in a beautifully artistic way. It’s got everything you love about Disney animated movies, right down to the animal sidekicks. (Who doesn’t love an idiotic chicken?) But for all the tradition, this one’s playful about its roots, poking fun at Disney’s endless princess franchise and tweaking the familiar trappings in a very forward-thinking way.