Riding high at the international box office comes Disney’s latest big-budget animated hymn to Girl Power, Moana. Eschewing their usual sources from European folk-tales, Disney have taken their inspiration from seafaring cultures of the South Pacific to give something both refreshingly new yet strangely familiar, it tells the story of a young adolescent girl, the daughter of the chief of the island of Motonui who decides to set out on a quest to retrieve the pounamu, a lost mystical artefact, to end the blight afflicting the waters and plants of her island.
With the guidance of her far-sighted grandmother Tala (Whale Rider‘s Rachel House), Moana (Auli’i Cravalho in her first role) discovers that her tribe is descended from a group of ocean adventurers and, defying her father’s wishes that she stay on the island, she embarks on her quest with just a stowaway rooster Hei Hei (Con Man‘s Alan Tudyk) for company. Her first task is to find the shapeshifting demigod Maui (San Andreas‘ Dwayne Johnson) who stole the pounamu in the first place and enlist his aid in restoring it to its rightful owner, the goddess Te Fiti.
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team behind Aladdin, Hercules and Treasure Planet, in many respects, Moana Waialiki sets new standards for female protagonists in the Disney canon; she is not the willowy creature so beloved of Disney animators until very recently and neither does her quest consist solely of finding her One True Love. Instead her courage and moral strength exceed those of the nominal male lead, Maui and, refreshingly, there is no hint of romantic interest between them.
In fact, there is no romance in this film at all which is the one major departure from Disney canon although given that Moana is little more than a child, any hint of romance between Moana and Maui would be considered ill-judged at best. In addition there are some delightfully knowing, almost meta moments in the dialogue and storytelling which suggest we are moving into a new more inclusive phase of Disney protagonists and the filmmakers take obvious delight in subverting some of the more obvious cliches of the genre.
Moana’s obligatory animal sidekick is not the cutesy piglet that she is so fond of in the opening scenes, but the mentally challenged pop-eyed rooster Hei Hei who is more of a liability than an asset. Fortunately, none of the animals speak, and of the principal cast, Cravalho more than holds her own against Hollywood’s Busiest Man, former wrestler and current action hero and all-around entertainer Johnson.
Entirely computer animated – Disney’s previous lava monster in Fantasia 2000 was entirely hand drawn – the presentation is of the very highest standard in the pictorial style that has become the norm for this type of feature, however there are some character continuity errors which betray the outsourcing of such features these days but these are minor and quickly forgotten as the story rattles along.
The songs and musical score by Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i are based on Polynesian rhythms, and like everything else in the film are sufficiently different to be noteworthy but formulaic enough to be satisfying, but here lies the dichotomy at the heart of Moana.
While it appears to be something new and different, and in many important ways it is, the plotting is still rigidly formulaic and there was nothing remotely unexpected in the way the story unfolded. In fact, certain key story moments lacked the impact of surprise because they were so clearly signalled earlier in the film. Despite this, Moana is a richly-realised and satisfying contribution to the Disney canon and would probably reward repeated viewing but the songs are insufficiently memorable to make this another breakaway hit like Frozen.