With every new release, Disney continues to assert itself as the dominant force in animation. Just when its contemporaries have caught up, the company sets the bar higher, which is exactly what its latest musical adventure does. Though unmistakeably a Disney film, the way it presents itself feels fresh and original.
On a remote, reef-surrounded island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, Chief Tui (Temeura Morrison) is in the process of handing over his village’s leadership to his teenage daughter, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). As chief-in-waiting, Moana proves herself to be resourceful and knowledgeable, but the island’s diseased vegetation and lack of fish is leaving her baffled. As a solution to these issues, Moana suggests beyond the safety of the reef in order to find other sources of food.
This plan doesn’t sit well with Chief Tui, who has warned his daughter many times before about the dangers of ocean travel. But with encouragement from her Gramma Tala (Rachel House, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Moana sets sail across the reef and into the vast, isolated waters of the Pacific. Whilst on her nautical voyage, she encounters the egocentric demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), whose super-strength and sea-faring abilities may be the key to helping Moana on her quest.
Disney accomplishes a number of notable firsts in Moana. To begin with, it is the first computer-animated film to be directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker. With classics such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin to their names, some saw their involvement as a sign that the studio were playing it safe with a pleasing, but not groundbreaking, feature-length animation. Surprisingly though, their latest venture is quite progressive.
An example of this idealism can be found in our title character. One of the most common tropes in animation is to have the authority of a female protagonist being challenged by a male figure – either through arranged marriage, or by treason. In a welcome deviation from the norm, Moana’s authority or legitimacy as chief is never questioned by another character, male or otherwise. Her gender does not define her character, a feat which deserves to be celebrated.
Cast as the voice of this strong, assertive heroine – in her debut acting role, no less – is Auli’i Cravalho. Despite this being her first credit in a feature film, Cravalho’s performance shows maturity and professionalism beyond her years, with her characterful, earnest voice bringing Moana to life – one should expect to hear it more often in the future. Dwayne Johnson, meanwhile, brings a delightful energy to the role of Maui, and proves himself to be an astonishingly good singer.
The film’s villains are equally as charming as the protagonists are. Examples include the Kakamora – a group of anthropomorphic coconut pirates (see above) – and Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement) the singing crab, who gifts Moana with some of its funniest moments, as well as a catchy song, “Shiny”. It’s not the only memorable number in the movie, either – a particular favourite of this reviewer is “You’re Welcome”, the tune which introduces Maui to the audience.
One qualm to be had with Moana is the conflict between characters. The first act’s disagreement between Moana and her father can only be described as trite, serving little more than a reminder of films which do a better job of exploring, and resolving, such conflict, like Whale Rider. (Given how many New Zealanders are in the cast, this might not be a coincidence.) That said, the film does take steps to justify the positions that the characters take, making them seem less arrogant and stubborn.
Moana represents a new and welcome direction for Walt Disney Animated Studios. It does everything one would expect – top-notch animation, music and voice talent – only with a strong female lead and delightfully absurd antagonists. It feels different to anything Disney has done before, and there should be more films like it.