Directors: John Musker & Ron Clements Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Sherzinger, Alan Tudyk Running Time: 113 minutes
From the release of Mulan in 1998 onwards, Disney animation has aimed for a more proactive set of Princesses, girls who take a more active role in their own story without having to be rescued by a handsome, strong-chinned hero. While refining that process, Disney has still stuck to the same basic structure for the Princess side of their animation department, with songs, animal sidekicks and heroes who just need to believe in themselves. Moana undoubtedly follows that same Disney formula, but if the songs are good, the animal sidekicks are funny and the heroes are worth believing in, who cares?
With its bright colours, island setting and non-snowy white characters, Moana represents a real turnabout from previous hit Frozen, which should be good news to worn-out parents who would rather just let it go. The island of Montunui is a lush paradise, the kind of place none of its inhabitants would ever want to leave. Except of course, chief-to-be Moana, who in the grand company tradition wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, having had a mystical connection to the ocean calling her since infancy. Though her father insists that she stays where she is and focus on being his successor, there is a little less of the usual head-butting here; Moana actully enjoys and is good at her calling as a leader in waiting. She doesn’t want to escape her current location, she just wants to expanden her horizons. As Disney characters go, the fact that Moana wants more than one thing is pretty multi-layered. She has a connection to her culture but want’s to experience other things, she doesn’t like being restricted by her father but isn’t confrontationally rebellious about it. In fact, it’s in the name of helping her people that she sets off on her journey, with fish disappearing and the island dying, Moana sets off to find the demi-god Maui and get him to reverse the curse he caused long ago that’s been spreading across the ocean.
The film is pleasant in the early going, but picks up considerably once Maui is introduced, voiced by Dwayne Johnson in fine charismatic, conceited form. From there the story is more or less on a rail towards the finish line, but despite the narrow focus and simple story (it’s just Moana and Maui for the vast majority of the film, sentient tattoo and brain-scrambled chicken sidekick aside), Moana successfully keeps things lively throughout. Interludes from all the sailing include a Fury Road-esque action sequence with angry coconuts and a welcome addition to the new animation trope, “Jermaine Clement shows up for a song”.
The songs are of course crucial to a film like this and thankfully the music, supplied by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda is full of memorable additions to the Disney songbook. Filtering the house style through Pacific music makes for fun and infectious drum beats. Add to that Miranda’s catchy lyrics and you get a pleasing mix of styles, with ‘How Far I’ll Go’ being classic Disney, Maui’s introduction song ‘Your Welcome’ being more of a Miranda rap/musical combo and ‘Shiny’ being a perfect replication of a Flight of the Conchords song, albeit sung by a giant crab. If anything Moana could do with a song or two more, but what is there makes for an undoubted highlight.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, just 14 when she recorded her lines for this film, balances strong vocals in those songs with a charming performance that matches up to more experienced counterparts like Kristen Bell or Mandy Moore in Frozen and Tangled. Moana’s arc is well-realised, even if it gets some heavy nudges along the way from Exposition Grandma and the Actual Ocean as her own Magic Carpet character. Her standard Chosen One narrative is helped by Cravalho’s voice, stubborn but earnest, which makes her desire to help her people feel real. She plays off Johnson well too, who also has some emotional beats to hit. Maui’s arc falters to pay off in the end, with him overcoming his self-doubt offscreen and Han Solo’ing back into the film, but since this is decidedly Moana’s story and not his, it’s an easy problem to look past. There are also times where Johnson’s sense of humour veers Maui a little more to the Dreamworks style of character than might be preferable. He certainly has the eyebrows for it. Though the film’s sense of humour is mostly on point, anachronistic references to ‘tweeting’ (one of Johnson’s favourite activities, after clanging and banging) are sure to cause some groans. Despite a few lame jokes, Johnson’s qualities come through in his voice, giving Maui an aloof older brother dynamic with Moana that makes a welcome change from any tacked-on love interests, absent completely here.
The world that these characters inhabit is beautifully designed, with Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements overseeing an animation team at the top of their game. The water effects in particular are spectacular, which is just as well in a film where you’ll be seeing a lot of water. With a lot of European countrysides sitting in the Disney canon, any variety is appreciated and the environments of Moana are bright, lush and distinctive. With a film so large in scope, using so many different textures, it’s animation that really impresses and the occasional use of traditional animation makes for a welcome change of pace.
Moana certainly hits the same story beats as many Disney films that have come before it. This doesn’t prevent it from being entertaining from start to finish, a visual treat and toe-tapper that will please both children and adults. It’s also just different enough around the edges to offer something different in the Disney context, from its location to its relative lack of conflict. It offers everything expected of a Disney film and does it very well, ensuring Moana as a welcome addition to the company’s list of hits.
Moana is released in Irish cinemas on December 2.(4 / 5)