Film Review: Disney’s newest heroine Moana (2016, USA) is destined to be a classic

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the spirited daughter of a Polynesian chief, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). She’s loveable and affable and Chief Tui is pretty much training her up to be the next big kahuna in her village. Her father has warned her that their village and island paradise is the only safe place for her, and that beyond the reef that surrounds their island, there is darkness and uncertainty.

When the villagers point out a food shortage, Moana takes it upon herself (thanks to some poking and prodding by, oh, you know, the ocean) to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and save her people. Naturally, all this is done in usual Disney style – witty one-liners and lots of catchy music.

You’ll be pleased to hear that Moana is kind of like the studio’s push for diversity. In an era where people are speaking out about a lack of representation in film and television, this film tries very hard to pay homage to the culture. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements (longtime Disney collaborators, having worked on both Aladdin and The Little Mermaid) did well to bring in consultants; essentially experts in Polynesian culture.  They created what Disney called an “Oceanic Story Trust” to ensure cultural responsibility was kept together.  There are have been some early reports of some misrepresentation, but the movie biz is new to this and baby steps are baby steps.

But let’s talk storyline.  There’s nothing really that incredibly inventive about this Disney animated film, in that it’s much like any other Disney film.  Young person seeks to find the good in themselves, their families and their world.  Joins forces with someone who is also on some kind of quest.  Magic and mayhem ensue.  Songs are sung.  The day is won.  Everyone is happy.  Roll credits.

Except, in 2016, we’re finally seeing Disney turn the narrative around a little bit.  Twenty odd years ago, Ariel was depicted as a princess looking for her prince on dry land.  Similarly, so was Sleeping Beauty.  So was Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  Granted, they were 3 examples of Disney adaptations of fairly tales, but thankfully, in Disney’s original animated films, and in present day Disney animated films, girls are saving the day, and not waiting for their knight in shining armour, so to speak. The character of Moana joins the ranks of Brave‘s Merida and Frozen‘s Elsa as role models that girls and boys can aspire to be.  Moana is not inherently without fear.  She is, like all young people, afraid of the world outside her safe village.  She is also afraid of rule-breaking consequences from the parental unit.  But her belief in herself outweighs her fear, and this is what makes her accessible to audiences of all ages.

The role of Moana is played by Auli’i Cravalho, a relative newcomer to the spotlight.  There was a fair amount of buzz around her casting, being Hawaiian herself, and it hit media outlets around the same time as Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone’s Aloha was being dragged through the mud because of its whitewashing of its characters.  People welcomed the news of Cravalho playing a Disney Polynesian heroine, and rightly so.  At only 15, she carried the role well, her singing voice is lovely and at such a young age, she’ll probably be in other projects in the future.

Dwayne Johnson played the role of demigod Maui, and I think it’s safe to say the world at large can stop being surprised that this former WWE wrestler has any performing chops, because he does.  As Maui, Johnson is the right amount of over-confident for Moana’s assuredness.  Like Terry Crews, Dwayne Johnson is comedic beefcake gold.  And his singing aint bad, either!  His key song, You’re Welcome, showcases his singing abilities, and suited the tone of the film and his character perfectly (it’s a tongue-in-cheek bit about how wonderful Maui thinks he is to … everybody).

Supporting cast members also do a pretty good job here, namely Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame, who does goofy villain Tamatoa quite well, singing a smooth, R&B-like song with ease.  Temuera Morrison plays Moana’s father, and it’s nice to see that he isn’t asked to lose his kiwi accent.

The songs in the film are what will make it a Disney classic.  Written by Lin-Manual Miranda, whose star is rising thanks to his blockbuster Broadway hit Hamilton, has turned what could have been just your average run-of-the-mill daggy show tunes into really “singable” songs, the kinds you will more than likely here ad nauseam in the car if you are shuttling kids around.  The two songs previously mentioned are catchy and lighthearted, but How Far I’ll Go is truly uplifting, like in a Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid kind of way.   Miranda’s songs are inspirational and aspirational.

Naturally, the artwork and animation is slick and Disney-worthy. Characters are expressive and wonderful to watch – take a good look at Maui’s tattoos, which have a life of their own!  What’s really eye-catching this time around is the artwork for the water.  It’s an adventure on the high seas, after all, and the water in both this movie and in the culture play an important role, so the water is given a character of its own, and it’s as alive and shiny and real as any of the film’s other characters.

Moana is a film you’ll enjoy watching, no matter you age.  It’s uplifting, entertaining, and satisfyingly Disney.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Moana is in cinemas on Boxing Day, 26th December 2016