Moana, the latest animated heroine to join the Disney family, is the teenage daughter of a Pacific Island Chieftain, desperate to explore beyond the confines of the shallow reef surrounding their idyllic habitat. As environmental degradation starts to upset the careful equilibrium of their existence there, Moana, urged on by her rebellious grandmother, decides she must venture out into the wider ocean in the tradition of her explorer ancestors. Her mission: to find Maui, the demigod responsible for the theft of the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, so it can be returned and her people saved.
From the directors of A Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Moana shows Disney at its best and worst. John Musker and Ron Clements’s talent for animation translates from hand-drawn classics to high-tech CG to breathtaking effect, with every ripple and colossal wave of the turquoise waters stunningly delineated. The music delivers on some addictive singalong numbers, thanks partly to the man also behind Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, such as already-mixed-ready-for-the-charts How Far I’ll Go. And the studio have proved a dedication to branch out beyond a white-Western-centric view, with the depiction of Polynesian culture and history beautifully handled and lovingly recreated.
However, the folkloric plot is desperately formulaic. Despite the heroine, voiced wonderfully by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, joining the great tradition of female empowerment, this is a tale laden with – admittedly self-aware – clichés: Maui teases Moana, “If you wear a dress and have an animal side-kick, you’re a princess”. And despite every effort to accurately capture the way of life and traditions of a people – tattoos, cloth design and dance style included – the animation medium falls prey to stereotyping and has seen criticisms of appropriation.
There are some unique aspects that save Moana from Disney business-as-usual. An absolute highlight is psychedelic Tamatoa the hermit crab in a hilarious David Bowie-esque skit by Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame. There is also a ground-breaking absence of any kind of self-defining love interest for our heroine, instead just relentless banter with brilliantly egotistical Maui, played aptly by “Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson”, the focus remaining on Moana’s search for her own identity.
Overall, this has perhaps not kept up with some of the more innovative animated adventure films of late – Zootopia and Frozen to name a few – but with some charming characters, including a personified ocean, and an earworm soundtrack, Moana is certainly set to put a smile on audience’s faces.
Moana is released nationwide on 2nd December 2016.
Watch the trailer for Moana here: