Co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements are behind a small handful of some of Disney’s most celebrated work, helming, and writing, classic animations such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. Technology has advanced in somewhat staggering fashion since the latter, but this latest endeavour, also set in and around the ocean, maintains that sense of glorious familiarity, as a film that while relevant and very modern, abides affectionately by the tropes of the genre at hand, depicting Polynesian culture with an air of enchantment and respect.
Auli’i Cravalho voices the eponymous princess Moana, the only child of a chief who vies to maintain order on their modest island, in spite of the challenges thrown in their direction, most notably the lack of fish to survive off. Though warned about setting off into the unforgiving landscape of the open water, the courageous youngster defies any such orders in a bid to track down demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who she believes is the only person who can help to save her home, as legend states that he once stole the ‘Heart of Te Fiti’ and is now required to help Moana claim it back. The pair set sail, and with his powers and her undeniable, spiritual connection to the ocean, they prepare to do battle against a myriad of creatures and monsters to save her people’s future.
Moana is an animation that holds an unwavering commitment to comedy, even to the point where one song – and without doubt the film’s finest musical number – has been written to match the sensibilities of its performer Jemaine Clement, playing the extravagant antagonist Tamatoa, which could have been hand-picked right out of a Flight of the Conchords episode. This scene is emblematic of a film that doesn’t make compromises to be more ‘Disney’, also evident in how the filmmaker’s have evidently allowed Johnson to play a version of himself, bringing his own idiosyncrasies to the role of Maui, comparable in that regard to what we saw with Eddie Murphy’s turn in Mulan or Robin Williams as the Genie.
Given Johnson is the world’s highest paid actor it makes sense for this to be the case – people adore The Rock and want to see him on the big screen, so to keep the character in line with his unique brand as a comic actor and encourage improvisation is of huge benefit to the film. He can sing pretty well too (but then we knew that already). It’s a great role for the actor to undertake, for Maui is heavily flawed, representing something of an antihero, in spite of his demi-God status. Moana makes for a wonderful protagonist and entry point too, strong-willed and independent without contrivance, in what is yet another role model for young girls – an area Disney are thriving in at present, and setting the precedence for other studios to take note.
Visually Moana is wondrous, so vibrant, utilising the folklore and mythology to make for an ineffably enchanting production, both in tone and aesthetic – while just the way the sun glistens off the turquoise sea is breathtaking to look at. Yet on a negative note, the songs are not strong enough and all too forgettable, without that same catchiness that made Frozen’s soundtrack so popular. The film is also lacking in that emotional core, and while it’s far from a pre-requisite for a film to move the viewer, as this certainly revels more so in its comedic tendencies, given Disney so often evoke and stir our emotions – and make us cry uncontrollably on occasion, it just makes the lack of tears in this instance, somewhat notable in their absence.