Cast: (voiced by) Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Writer: Jared Bush
Whenever Disney makes a fairy tale, they have a formula they like to follow. It’s one that’s been around since Snow White was first made and it’s one that they’ve consistently used because (a) it’s recognisable and (b) it works. The protagonist is usually a heroine (often a princess) who is unsure about her place in the world and is searching for something. She will have an animal sidekick who helps out along the way while providing some laughs. The adventure she embarks upon will involve music and magic and oftentimes she will find love along the way. At the end there will be an evil that must be overcome or defeated and then the characters will live happily ever after. The formula is always there, but Disney’s genius is in its ability to introduce a spin or some new elements to their stories that distract us from the formula. Moana is a good, enjoyable film with likeable characters, great music and superb animation, but it is also one of Disney’s more formulaic films.
Moana is the daughter of Chief Tua Waialiki of the Polynesian island of Motunui and is destined to become the tribe’s first female chief. As an infant she was bestowed with an ancient artefact by the ocean, a sign that she had been chosen to fulfil some great destiny. Moana thus grows up with a thirst for adventure and yearns to explore the ocean and see what is out there. Her people however believe that the island provides them with everything that they need and so they are forbidden to venture beyond the reef, even when the sudden scarcity of fish and failure of the crops threatens to famish them. Moana learns that this blight is the result of an ancient darkness released by the mythical hero Maui when he stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. It is up to her to take the heart that was given to her by the ocean and find Maui so that he might return it to where it belongs. To do this she must sail the depths the ocean, as her ancestors had long before her, and venture into the unknown.
The film, to its credit, does not exactly follow the Disney formula beat for beat. There is, for example, no love interest. Also Moana, strictly speaking, is not a princess (even though, as Maui points out, she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick). Most of the formulaic elements that are present, (the spirited heroine, the closed-minded father, the comedic sidekick, the obnoxious but loveable hero, the moment of doubt and failure that comes before the moment of triumph) the film does well. The issue is that I was thinking about this formula the entire time I was watching this film because there weren’t any substantial departures or twists to make me feel like Disney was really trying something new. Frozen did this by placing its main focus on the relationship between the two sisters. The Lion King did it by departing the familiar children’s fables and instead adapting a Shakespearian tale of madness, deceit and revenge. Moana has a new setting and some new characters, but the story is one Disney has told before. Even though I enjoyed the film a good deal, I was acutely aware that the film was going through the motions much of the time.
That said, there is a lot to enjoy. Moana, portrayed convincingly by newcomer and native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho, is a likeable protagonist and is certainly one of Disney’s most active princesses. Dwayne Johnson brings a wealth of charisma and swagger to the role of Maui. The animation, as always, is stunning, especially at the beginning when Moana first discovers the ocean and at the end after the great evil is defeated. The music composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose Hamilton soundtrack has recently become an obsession of mine) is both memorable and distinctive from what Disney has done before. Much praise has been given to ‘How Far I’ll Go’, which some have predicted will become the next ‘Let It Go’, but my favourite track was ‘We Know the Way’, which plays when Moana learns about her ancestry. The story itself flows well for the most part, but there is one very strange scene involving a giant crab that kind of comes out of nowhere. I wouldn’t exactly call it a bad scene or anything; it’s just… strange.
Those who watch this film looking for a fun, exciting, amusing, pleasant Disney film that the entire family can enjoy will get exactly that. Personally though, with the standard that Disney has set in the last few years, I’d have liked to see a film that took a few more risks and held a few more surprises like Zootropolis. I think that most people who watch this film will be able to predict how exactly it will play out, but whether or not that’s a bad thing will depend on the viewer. There is little in this film that I can fault, my only real grievance is that I don’t think there was enough introduced to the story that could allow it to stand on its own amongst the other movies that Disney has produced. Still, it is to be sure a wonderfully animated, well told, characteristically Disney film that will please kids, grown-ups and die-hard Disney fans.