“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” mocks demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) when his companion Moana (played excellently by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) contends that she is actually a Chieftain’s daughter. This meta-textual point is emphasised by veteran directors John Musker and Ron Clements of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin fame, who transform their virtuosity for hand-drawn animation to the arena of CG with ease and succeed in positioning Moana away from those sickly sweet (and usually white) princesses synonymous with the Disney marketing machine. This allows Moana to join aboard the new generation of Disney films in utilising the tools of its predecessors to sail towards new and exciting places.
As a child Moana (which means “deep ocean”) is marked by the ocean as special, its lapping waves invite her into its depths like an old friend, in one scene opening up around her to form a natural aquarium. This intimate bond with the ocean is challenged by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), who insists that she stay within the confines of the reef which surrounds their picturesque island home of Motunui. When the island’s ecosystem begins to die, the task falls to Moana to venture out into the ocean’s vast blue depths in order to save their home. Inheriting the spirit of exploration from her ancestors, she sails into the unknown with vigour, some trepidation, and her dim-witted chicken, Heihei.
Motivated by her grandmother, the self-proclaimed village crazy lady, Moana’s mission is to persuade the demigod Maui to return the Heart of Te Fiti, a magical stone which he stole many years ago. Maui resembles a Samoan rugby player, his gigantic muscular frame covered in magical tattoos reminiscent of the vases in Hercules, and act as the physical manifestation of his conscious. It is ironic that Johnson’s career, forged on his physical appearance, hits its loftiest heights with his vocal performance as Maui. He clearly enjoys the role, his voice inflected with joy and self-deprecatory laughter which is no better identified than during the catchy and egocentric “You’re Welcome” (“there’s no need to pray, it’s okay, you’re welcome!”). The film is filled with other memorable musical moments including the affecting “I Am Moana”, the stirring “How Far I’ll Go”, and trippy “Shiny”, performed by Jemaine Clement as the blinged out hermit crab Tamatoa who wouldn’t look out of place in a rap entourage.
The adventures of Moana and Maui will be familiar to longtime Disney fans, though the execution ensures the formula stays fresh. They encounter miniature pirates which resemble Mad Max villains, traverse the vividly realised realm of monsters, and battle a fiery lava monster which laughs in the face of the rating board’s declaration that “some scenes may scare young children”. The duo’s companion along these trials is the ever-reliable and ever-present sea, reciprocating Moana’s love as it guides her across its shimmering surface. More refreshing than the ocean on a summer’s day is the character of Moana herself. Liberated from the unrealistic elfin body image of previous princesses, she is imbued with a healthily proportioned physique akin to the Hawaiian characters in Lilo & Stitch. It would be remiss to think the liberation only skin deep, she is a woman who inspires respect from her tribe and shows an affinity for ruling her homeland — she just has different dreams.
Moana is another addition to the modern renaissance of Disney films, a simple tale that is amplified by its cultural context, characters imbued with life by their voice actors, as well stunning animation and a brilliant soundtrack which will have you humming along for days. Much like Maui crafted the islands, Disney have created a world which is a pleasure for us to venture into.