It must be the month before Christmas, because another Disney princess movie is out. Unless you’ve been under a rock (but not The Rock), Moana is Disney’s latest girl-targeted royalty offering to enter its ever-growing canon. Taking another opportunity to step away from the traditional European castle princesses, Moana takes a chance with a princess of color and sets the story in an undefined Polynesian setting, making use of the Hawaiian legend of the demigod Maui.
As a 21st century princess tale, Moana hits all the notes you’d expect it to hit in terms of a girl’s journey of self-discovery. Moana opens with a legend of the great hero Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a braggadocious demigod who steals a jewel from the goddess Te Fiti. This action effectively causes an ecological disaster in the Pacific, where a fire demon also seeking the jewel causes a darkness to spread across the ocean, killing everything. Maui is exiled and the jewel is lost, but legend tells of a hero who will force Maui to return the jewel to its home.
Moana (Auili’i Cravalho), of course, ends up being that hero. Not that she anticipates being so at first. Though she’s drawn to the ocean at an early age (and the ocean is drawn to her), her father (Temura Morrison–yes, it’s Jango Fett) is the chief of an island people who believe that everything that’s ever needed lies at home. He sells the safety and security of the island of Montunui as much as the dangers of the ocean, constantly affirming that Moana belongs at home to be ready to become the next chief. However, when Moana hits young adulthood, the fish disappear and the crops begin dying. Moana constantly feels compelled to go beyond the ocean, despite her father’s stern warnings. When she receives a gift from her grandmother (Rachel House) – and makes a shocking discovery about her people – she is finally compelled to get off the island and begin a quest to find Maui and defeat the threat to the entire ocean.
One of the positives of Moana is that it goes beyond the storytelling tropes of prior Disney films. Initially, it appears as though the story is going to be caught in the typical parent-child tension of not venturing outside of home versus taking a chance on a new world–a plot we’ve, amusingly, also seen in The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo. But Moana’s singular journey of self-discovery–her quest to find that voice inside of her that tells who she’s meant to become–becomes a metaphor for most of the other major characters in the story. Moana’s father, her tribe, Maui, and one other surprising character all suffer from identity issues: lacking awareness of their true selves, and giving us a story with a little more depth than prior princess offerings.
The journey through that story, though, is a bit rote. Moana’s personal journey follows the usual story beats of introduction, rebellion, and adventure with various bumps and musical interludes. Moana and Maui encounter, for example, a tribe of angry coconut pirates (OK, they’re cute, and also evil) and a crab monster. These scenes may be well done, but they don’t accomplish much beyond stretching the story for time and possible merchandising. (I would like to own a coconut pirate.)
Moana‘s other flaw is its music, which isn’t bad, but also isn’t memorable. Let’s face it: music is what makes or breaks a Disney film, with the Renaissance period setting the gold standard for a standout cartoon. The problem is that Moana‘s songs aren’t the earworms that made, say, “Let It Go” and “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman” so catchy. “How Far I’ll Go,” “I Am Moana” and “We Know The Way” are effective power ballads in the film, but not really something that carry outside the theater. The breakout song of the film will likely be, oddly enough, “You’re Welcome,” sung by Dwayne Johnson himself. Johnson’s performance is fine on a technical level, though not outstanding. However, the Rock seems to be having a lot of fun during his singing, so let’s not hold the heights of the quality against him.
Moana does do two things very well. The first is that it very effectively uses color and scenery to create a rich, majestic version of this Pacific universe. The magnificence of the islands and the ocean life really are breathtaking with the full palette of colors being used, giving the same sense of grandeur to the ocean that Finding Nemo did a decade ago. A particularly stunning scene is the climactic battle with the fire monster, which suddenly makes Moana look remarkably small as she goes up against a creature of Titanic proportions. In other words, Moana truly brings you into a larger world very effectively.
The other advantage of Moana is its effective use of sidekicks. Past Disney movies have struggled to have a meaningful balance with the “cute animal character” comic relief. For example, The Princess and the Frog overdid things with the side plots about the firefly and the alligator, neither of which meaningfully advanced the main story. Here, the sidekicks are purely supporting cast, adding a well-deserved chuckle but nothing heavy handed. Unusually, two of the three sidekicks don’t even have speaking parts. Aside from the world’s stupidest chicken, Moana also effectively uses a tattoo on Maui’s chest and the ocean itself (manifesting in the form of an emoting wave) without having either speak a word.
While Moana probably won’t reach legendary status among the princess films–probably falling towards the lower half with Mulan, Princess and the Frog, and Tangled, it’s still a spectacle to behold and can be enjoyed as a one-time viewing. With winter coming, a little tropical viewing could be just what the family needs.
Bonus: here’s our video interview with the reviewer’s daughter on what she thought of Moana.
Rating: Three really stupid chickens out of five.
Thanks to Allied Baltimore for supplying the press screening tickets.