Disney isn’t ever focused on doing anything earth-shatteringly new. Instead, this is an animation studio aiming towards, perhaps more than anything, on nailing the fundamentals. That’s where Moana lies, their latest CG project about a Māori demigod teaming up with a “princess” to fulfill one or more destinies. But despite being predictable at times—even bordering on rote—the execution is near flawless and pushes to be progressive in its setup and even attempts a few interesting tricks in the narrative.
The primary and eponymous bit of this film is Moana Waialiki (Auli’i Cravalho), the sixteen-year-old daughter in line to take over for her father as chief of their island tribe. It’s a big responsibility making sure their spot of land among an endless ocean runs smoothly, and it’s made more complicated by her ever-present drive to sail. Even as a child, the ocean has called to her, compelled her to sail beyond the reef surrounding their home Motunui, though her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) is adamantly—hostilely—against it.
Turns out it’s actually destiny calling her, and with the aid of her grandmother Gramma Tala (Rachel House), pet pig Pua, and tagalong idiot rooster friend Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), Moana eventually discovers the truth and the reason why the island is dying. She sets out across the sea to find the absent and legendary demigod Māui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore the somewhat literal heart of Te Fiti, the mother island. Adventure, basically, awaits.
It really takes its time getting into the adventure, though, which is oddly welcome. The film doesn’t really get going until halfway through, or at least it doesn’t feel that way upon initial viewing and dissection. This is one of the neat things the film tries that’s out of the box. If you try to stuff it (or assume it tries to fit) into a neat little three-act, hero’s journey framework, it doesn’t quite mesh. Instead, it’s more about self-realization, leaving external influences aside.
Seriously, Māui doesn’t even show up until the middle of the movie. Her journey is her own, which is remarkably and sadly progressive. The film’s basic structure is something of a buddy road trip flick, but its built of themes established early on and pushes through to the end. Though the absolute conclusion is predictable (it is a kids film, after all, with a happy ending and all that), the resolution that gets us there feels earned.
Some of it does, however, feel a bit recycled. Throw in a bit of The Lion King, add a dash of Frozen, and shake it up with a spritz of Mulan and Finding Dory, and you’ve got it. An awareness from the film (courtesy of screenwriter Jared Bush and a litany of other contributors) is welcome in this aspect, however, even going so far as to comment on what qualifies as a Disney princess.
At the cost of giving up what makes Moana’s arc so fantastic, however, is a tepid approach to Māui’s own story. He is rife with his own set of formative events, desires, and psychological quirks, all of which are established in quality varying from sufficient to terrific. But his conflict is introduced and resolved as quickly as just about any other modern comedy. He almost literally Han Solos his way back into the story after he briefly dips out. Thankfully he isn’t the only dish being served, but it is an unfortunate consequence of simply being constrained to a 103-minute film.
It’s a laser focus, though, that’s greatly appreciated. It gives us a chance to fully embrace our main protagonist, charming and bubbly and god damn determined as she is. Cravalho takes on the role with overwhelming aplomb, ripping between cartoonish ranges of bumbling likability with an indescribable sort of groundedness. She effuses gravitas and lightness in the same breath. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of her.
And though we’ve been getting plenty of Johnson in recent years, it’s clear that it’s mostly well deserved. Aside from Moana, the Pacific Ocean, and a carnival-colored chicken, he gets the most screen time. And while the character is obviously written and built around this particular casting, its effective. Johnson’s persona is, despite his hulking frame, largely his voice, and putting that to use to power a larger-than-life folkloric legend is almost too obvious.
That casting is also important. While a good deal of the cast is of mixed heritage, they also have a good footing in the Pacific Islander camp. It shows, most easily, in the way they actors pronounce certain words or inflect their particular vowel combinations. This diversity is an important step not just for a consistently whitewashing Hollywood but also one of the biggest and historically troubled studios still in the game.
You can see the effort put forth by the studio (and read about it in this Vanity Fair piece) in the depiction of these Polynesian characters and their culture and their physical morphology. They are evocative and indicative of the trademark physical features of these tribes without being derogatory. It introduces a visual-based diversity to many people that they would otherwise get very limited exposure to.
And, of course, you can’t see a musical without talking about the songs, and composers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina do an exceptional job. From Miranda, you get the tremendously innate understanding and infusing of internal rhyming structures and catchy syncopation. From Foa’i, there is the deeply tribal and prodigiously driving drums of a pan-Pacific soundscape. Mancina rounds the group out by giving a classical flair to these relatively fresh, hot sounds, giving a familiar twinge to the film’s soundtrack.
It’s not clear if we have another “Let It Go” contender (money’s on “How Far I’ll Go,” though), but they certainly are catchy in the moment and never fall into the trap of musical numbers simply stating intent and function rather than giving reason. But it’s hard to fault a film that does so much right, especially when the only things it really does wrong is borrow from some of the best animated films of the past 20 years. Whether you have the time or not, go see Moana.
Plus, it’s hard to argue against a movie that conjures up the most adorable George Miller, Fury Road-inspired naval battle ever conceived.
Final Score: 9 out of 10