Since its announcement and subsequent preview at the Annecy Animation Festival this summer, Moana has been greatly anticipated as Disney Animation’s feature offering of this year, brought to you by directing duo John Musker and Ron Clements. Watching the film will leave you pining for expansive Pacific summer seascapes and depressed that all that awaits outside the cinema is grey December. With the most incredible setting, Moana will transport you for a visually amazing 107-minute adventure.
This film is the heartwarming story of Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a girl who has been chosen by the sea to go on a mission to save her people from a supernatural disaster, with the help of the Demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Exploring the themes of family, respect for the past and hope for the future it’s a real classic of the Disney ‘genre’.
The downside of this however is that the story is very formulaic. If you were to take the visuals away and just listen to the dialogue and songs, you will discover that it is really a hybrid of Mulan and Hercules. Some song lyrics are directly comparable. There are even a couple of visual story moments that have been swiped from Lilo and Stitch. It is a really enjoyable film, don’t get me wrong, but don’t expect an original story when going to watch it.
Having said this however, I love the fact that there is no love story in this film. It is all about Moana’s relationship with her family, her discovery of who she is and her friendship with Maui. On this level it is very empowering – Moana has a three-dimensional personality and believable, nuanced relationships with those around her. She is strong but flawed, earnest but unprepared, a vast improvement on the generic ‘adorably clumsy’ heroines of features in the recent past.
While the main antagonist of the story is an incredible lava monster – I will try not to gush too much about the technical wonders of this film – the real breakout bad-guy-character is Tamatoa, voiced by Jemaine Clement. Tamatoa has stolen Maui’s magical fish hook and the first challenge Moana faces is to help get it back. He has what is arguably the most catchy song of the film and is just so deliciously wicked that you can’t help but love him, in the same way as the Ursulas and Cruellas of the past stole our evil hearts.
The music is brilliant, and more so were the few references made by characters in a pseudo-fourth-wall-breaking way to the fact that they would introduce themselves by singing. This humour extended to many stereotyped elements of classic Disney films; Maui says to Moana at one point, “if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess”.
On the animal sidekick note, I remember during previews a lot being made of Moana’s pig, but in the end it only appears right at the beginning and at the end. The real animal sidekick star is the chicken, Heihei. When a significant portion of a film is set on a raft facing significant elemental dangers as well as internal struggles, it helps to have a bit of comedy relief, in this case with a chicken. (Disney’s answer to Life of Pi’s animal companion). Heihei was not just an afterthought though; he was very well integrated into the story and at no point felt irrelevant.
One of my favourite elements of the film was Maui’s 2D-animated tattoos. ‘Little Maui’ has his own distinct personality and the banter between him and ‘real’ Maui acts as a window into the internal struggles this seemingly all-powerful demigod faces. Maui literally argues with himself and when annoyed will banish Little Maui to his back or his armpit.
I would really recommend this film as a fun watch for the holiday. While I would not call the story particularly original it has a lot of heart and is worth a watch for the beautiful animation, eye-watering effects, and music that you won’t stop singing for days afterwards.