Directors - Ron Clements and John Musker
Cast - Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Nicole Scherzinger, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk
Rating - 3.5/5
The Disney princess is resilient. She mops floors. She cooks and cleans. She is often patronised. But she goes on adventures. She inspires generations. Like a goddess, she has many avatars.
In 2016, she arrives in the form of Moana, a young girl from a Polynesian island called Motunui. She is the chief’s daughter, destined to lead her people and keep them safe from the monsters in the seas that surround them, stories about whom she is told by her eccentric grandma.
One of these stories is about the demigod Maui. As the legend goes, Maui stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti in a characteristically cocky attempt to harness its power. Immediately, he was confronted by the lava god Te Ka, who defeated Maui, and left him stranded on an island, his magical fishhook, and Te Fiti’s heart, lost in the sea forever.
This escapade earned Maui a reputation that robbed him of all respect. Like Loki, his mischievous ways overwhelmed whatever nobility he ever had. In the eyes of those that once worshipped him, Maui became an outcast.
A thousand years later, in a world in which Maui is all but an old grandmother’s tale, Moana’s island is ‘attacked’ in a most mysterious manner. The huge trees and majestic mountains, once lush with tropical greenery, turn sooty black and disintegrate. It seems to be the lava god Te Ka’s doing.
But Moana receives a sign from the seas. It is a little green stone; Te Fiti’s heart. With her stern father’s warnings ringing in her mind, she answers the call. Moana is the chosen one. She must journey across the vast seas, accompanied with her dim-witted chicken Heihei, and she must find Maui, the only one who can take her to restore Te Fiti’s heart.
There are two ways in which Moana can be viewed, and neither of them should matter to the audience for which it was made. Children will adore it regardless. They will be mesmerised by its beauty. They will find new heroes to idolise. They will sing its songs and they will curl in fear at the sight of its creatively-designed monsters. But where Moana succeeds, it also stalls.
In the recent streak of excellent films by Disney Animation (not to be confused with Pixar), which includes Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Wreck-it Ralph (my personal favourite), Moana is probably the youngest-skewing of the lot.
As glorious as it is to listen to Dwayne Johnson rap Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics, and as fun as it is to watch a large action scene that is clearly a homage to Mad Max: Fury Road, there are moments in which Moana feels too innocent for desensitised minds – and this is most evident in its humour, which should be just fine for children, but is never as biting as some of those classic Pixar films.
But speaking of Lin-Manuel Miranda, this would probably be the first time the rest of the world is exposed to his genius. His musical Hamilton earned the unique distinction of becoming a cultural phenomenon despite most of the world never having experienced it. But with Moana, he will become a household name, and will also probably win an Oscar.
But Moana’s success as a musical should hardly come as a surprise since it is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, two names you will be impressed with in a moment, when I inform you that they also directed Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
Moana is a fine addition to Disney’s already enviable roster of princesses. As portrayed by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, she is endearing, warm, and spunky. And Dwayne Johnson, as Maui, is wonderful as the more flamboyant, charismatic foil to her character. He basically plays himself, but something tells me no one would be complaining about that.
In the end, Moana is a terrific Disney movie; vibrant, joyful, with great music and enthusiastic performances. It is steeped in tradition, both of its many legendary predecessors and the colourful culture it celebrates.