Moana could be seen as the final corrective to the Disney princess formula. It is the ultimate expression of decades of rehabilitation, the end of the journey of the female cartoon lead from beautiful sufferer of maladies to complex heroic figure worthy of following on an adventure. The titular character (Auli’i Cravalho) is a chieftain’s daughter. All her life, she’s been drawn to the sea, but her people are content on their little island, and discourage her from exploring beyond the reef. But an encroaching darkness is threatening life on the island, and Moana takes on a quest to find the trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and deliver him to a far off island where he can restore something that was stolen and save the world.The setup isn’t actually very different from the rest of the Disney canon. This is another story of a young woman who is told that there are limits to what she can do, and then she goes out and tries to overcome them. In fact, directors Ron Clements and John Musker were at the helm of The Little Mermaid, which might be the most beloved iteration of this setup. But the film acknowledges the similarities, and in its details, it improves on every element. And because of these tweaks, it ends up delivering a much more satisfying, much more substantial experience.
The film feels much more focused than any other of the Disney princess films, for example. The middle section isn’t crowded with subplots and side characters. For most of the film, it’s really just Moana and Maui, learning to deal with each other in spite of their differences. And this relationship isn’t cheapened by the suggestion of romance. They are together on an adventure, fighting side-by-side against threats big and small, external and internal. While the characters fend off monsters, they are also in search of identities in a world that seems to have already decided for them.The film strikes a fine balance between conveying the emotional narratives of these characters and placing them in adventurous contexts. The film doesn’t really do much more than line up a series of obstacles for these characters to overcome, but the threats are visually interesting, and each encounter provides an opportunity to convey personal growth. Together, Moana and Maui face down a swarm of pirates that also happen to be coconuts, and a giant crab that lures prey in with a shell adorned with all manner of treasure. And in these thrilling encounters, the characters and their individual journeys are always in play.
And it’s a musical, too. They’ve tapped Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the songs, and they run an interesting gamut of styles. It seems unlikely that the main theme, How Far I’ll Go will have the same cultural impact as Let It Go, but it’s a pretty good iteration of the Disney princess song. More interesting are You’re Welcome, which sounds the most like a Lin-Manuel Miranda song, and Shiny, a quasi-Bowie riff that’s a perfect fit for Jermaine Clement. The voice cast in general is pretty great. Auli’i Cravalho is terrific in the lead role, and Dwayne Johnson is able to evoke a lot of emotion out of what at first appears to be little more than a broad, cartoonish character.
Moana is great. There’s a lot bubbling under the surface here; a lot that could be said about the way the movie is telling a story about gender in the context of the Disney princess film. But one doesn’t need to dive very deep to find the merits of this film. Even on the surface, this film charms thoroughly; its narrative, visuals and music combining beautifully to create an experience that’s easy to recommend. It works with classic elements, but delivers something totally modern, and any parent ought to be glad to show this to his or her kid.
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios