Moana is a wonderful new entry in Disney’s long line of animated films, although it did repeatedly make me think of the people that love to hate Disney movies on general principles. That’s because it’s not merely a fairy tale; like 1995’s Pocahontas, it draws inspiration from real-life indigenous culture, tradition, and myth – from Polynesia, in this case – while never losing sight of the fact that, as a family film, details are freely altered and, to an extent, lightened up. I can already hear the complaints, the cries of protest over misrepresentation and sanitizing. I’ve never seen the need to react so negatively to these movies. Their primary goal is to be entertaining, not historically, culturally, or even narratively accurate.
Perhaps some common ground can be found in the fact that, like Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Moana is a cornucopia of beautiful images and vivid colors. Looking at the film, you really feel as if a story is coming to life – and yes, this is true even if you pay extra to see the film in 3D, preferably Real D 3D. It helps that the characters, though undeniably stylized, are rendered to appear recognizably from the South Pacific region; when you look at the title character, a teenage girl, you’ll notice that she’s a bit on the short side and has a slightly thicker figure. In other words, she wasn’t made to meet the westernized criteria for beauty. Nevertheless, she is beautiful.
Common ground may also be found in the fact that the actions of the title character, with a speaking voice by Auli’i Cravalho, are not dictated by a longing for true love or the hope of happily ever after. There isn’t anything wrong with the Disney films that do utilize such conventions – there’s a reason, after all, that audiences have responded to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast – but there’s something to be said for a female cartoon character driven by more mature, less dependent goals. Having been called by the sea to save her people’s island from a sudden famine, she defies the wishes of her overprotective chief father (voiced by Temuera Morrison) and sails away from home.
Her mission is to find the shapeshifting demigod Maui and retrieve a magical stone he stole – the very stone that, according to the legends Moana grew up with, doubles as the heart of the great goddess Te Fiti, creator of all life. Moana will indeed find the cocky Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), a muscular behemoth with body-wide tattoos that can actually communicate with him. They become allies, albeit begrudgingly, and spend the rest of the film trying to return Te Fiti’s stone heart. Along the way, they’ll be attacked by tiny coconut pirates. And then, in an effort to regain Maui’s extra large hook, the source of his powers, they’ll enter a spectacular bioluminescent monster netherworld presided over a gigantic crab creature (voiced by Jemaine Clement) easily mollified by shiny objects. If you stay through the end credits, you’ll hear him tell a self-referential joke that most audiences, young and old, should find very funny.
The film, as would be expected from Disney, is a musical. It utilizes no less than three songwriters, although the only one audiences are likely to make note of is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who must still be riding high after the monumental success of his Broadway musical Hamilton. Having been spoiled on the songs of the Disney Renaissance films, the vast majority of which were composed by Alan Menken, it’s admittedly hard for me to accept anyone other than him contributing musically to a work of Disney animation. Having said that, Miranda’s songs are undeniably well-written, and are appropriate given the material. One of the best is sung by Johnson – a fast-paced, comedic, celebrity-minded number intended to distract Moana from Maui’s true intentions.
Will this movie ever be regarded as highly as Disney’s most beloved films? Who can say? All I know is that, of all the animated films of 2016, Moana is definitely one of the better ones; it tells an engaging story, it has nicely-developed characters, it has just the right mix of heart and humor (the latter especially evident in the title character’s animal sidekick, a mentally-defective chicken with googly eyes), and it’s a real sight to behold. Just wait until you see the climactic showdown between Moana and a fearsome, titanic lava god. My hope is that the film won’t be shot down by Disney haters and purists. If you can’t suspend disbelief for a fairy tale, if you can’t accept that legends are often freely revised and reinterpreted, you have no business going to the movies at all.