Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker.
Written by: Jared Bush and Ron Clements & John Musker and Chris Williams & Don Hall and Pamela Ribon and Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell.
Starring: Auli'i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui), Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina), Alan Tudyk (Heihei / Villager #3).
Disney has taken a lot, frankly deserved, criticism for its obsession with Princesses – which put images and gender roles into our children’s minds before they really know how to process them. Part of that isn’t wholly Disney’s fault – there is a lot of sexism (not to mention racism) in Hollywood in the 1930s-1950s when a lot of those Princess movies were made – and it’s something sophisticated viewers have to parse through when looking at those movies today – it’s just that most of those viewers are not children. I do think that Disney tried – with mixed success – throughout their renaissance in the 1990s to add more complexity to their female heroines – and they’ve tried even harder with more recent films like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen (not to mention TV shows like Sofia the First and Elena of Avalor – yes, I have two girls, under the age of five, living in my house). While all of these shows show progress over the old days of Disney – and have helped those two little girls in my house come to the conclusion that girls can do anything boys can do, and vice versa – they all still involve the Princesses getting dressed up in pretty clothes at some point, and they all feature a love interest (except Sofia – but she’s like, 8, so I guess that’s why). Their latest film Moana outdoes them all in that regard. It’s title character is a spunky, intelligent teenage girl (voiced, brilliantly, by newcomer Aoli’I Cravalho) who is destined to become leader of her tribe on island in the Pacific. She ends up forging her own path – doing what she thinks is right no matter what, and does the whole thing without a love interest or ever dressing up in a fancy gown. She even rejects the term princess (leading to one of the films funniest moments when another character calls her “daughter of the chief” instead). I loved sharing this movie with my two daughters – age five and almost three – who loved it themselves. Because while the film has a great message – it still could have been a bad movie. Instead, it’s a brilliantly animated, funny and musically wonderful film. It’s my favorite one of these “Disney Princess” movies in a long time (and I liked the last three very much).
The story begins with Moana being told by her father – Chief Tui – that her role will be as leader to her people – and that her people never venture beyond the reef. Their island provides them with everything they need, within that boundary, so why leave? She is drawn to the ocean however – and eventually, she feels that she has to venture out on it. She is told a legend of their people – that the Demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Tafiki (a green jewel), and that the ocean chose her to find Maui, and together return the jewel – which the ocean has given her – and break the curse that may otherwise destroy her people. Thus beings a lovely musical adventure.
Dwayne Johnson is, of course, one of the most charming screen presences in movies – and I like him when he’s a little goofy, and not all Fast & Furious serious. Maui may just be his best screen role to date – he’s large, and muscle bound – covered in tattoos, that come to life and mock him, with Troy Polamalu hair. As a Demi-God, he gave the people pretty much everything – as he isn’t shy about telling you – but since he’s lost his magical fish hook, he feels useless. He doesn’t much want to team up with Moana, but doesn’t have much choice. Together, they’ll end fighting through any number of obstacles and villains – including a jewel loving crab and a lava monster.
The music in the film includes several songs by Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. Best of them all is How Far I’ll Go – an empowerment anthem to rival Let it Go (with fewer contradictions). Johnson, who isn’t really known for his musical prowess gets in on the action with You’re Welcome – a hilarious little song. The anthem that they’re selling hard in the preview is We Know the Way – which is also quite good. The animation is another triumph for Disney – the water work at least as good as on Finding Dory by Pixar earlier this year. The character design is wonderful – not just of the creatures, by of Moana herself, who is hardly the stick figure we are used to seeing in Disney films (even the last few more “woke” films).
The storytelling in Moana is classic Disney – as we would expect from directors Ron Clements and John Musker, making their seventh film together (all for Disney, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog) – and is perhaps the weakest, or at least most safest choice the film makes. Overall though, Moana is pretty much pure Disney fun – and it’s got a good message as well, and delivers it without contradicting itself.