While the audience clearly wanted more of the gorgeous piggy-puppy character that’s only in the movie for two minutes, Disney’s tribute to Polynesian culture, Moana, is a colourful fable of the magic mushroom variety: taking us on a journey of wonder that left us in awe.
Animation legends Ron Clements and John Musker, the masters behind the classic animations Hercules (1997) and Aladdin (1992), return to tell the voyage of the strong-willed, soon-to-be chief of a remote Polynesian tribe, Moana Waialiki (played by wonderful newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), and her venture beyond the reef and through the sea to relieve the world of the curse caused by the demigod thief himself, Maui (the charismatic Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), hopefully with his help. It’s with this rich Polynesian mythology Clements & Musker give a raw, dazzling display of the new unbending hero’s journey. Moana, similar to Frozen’s Anna, rises above her Disney counterparts because this journey is fuelled on the character’s self-worth. There’s no whining of the reluctant hero, nor the unearned respect from others ala any Mary Sue. Moana is inspiring not just because of her humor or physical grace, but her morale; even as a little baby determined to reach the beach shore against her coddling parents wishes. Bloodlines and myths mean nothing without the heart to turn all that into good first-hand actions, which makes this seafarer such a delight to see earn her place as a cinematic idol.
In Maui’s case, Clements & Musker use him in a way that’s more along the lines of a cinematic or children’s book hero, which comes around in a more humanising arc. As audiences we’ve seen this before whether it’s Hercules himself or Flynn Rider in Tangled, but I’ve always professed it doesn’t matter if we’ve seen something before, it only matters if it works well for what it needs to be. Maui, and in addition his moving tattoo of personality, is a good fit for this two-hander adventure. His role is that of the arrogant, reluctant man of power questioning his skills in light of a foe who meets his match. Johnson and Cravalho are very brotherly and sisterly in their chemistry, giving this film a natural duopoly that suits this kind of fantasy narrative to get us invested.
In addition the musical support of Lin-Manuel Miranda (The Force Awakens’ Cantina) and Mark Mancina (Tarzan), soaks this journey in a pool of naturalistic delight, by utilising the beats of tribal drums, the hum of crowd mantras and the sweet voice of Johnson verbally capturing everyone in his majestic presence. His solo and many other tracks deserving of that coveted gold DiCaprio statue, gives Disney a new sound barely represented on screen. This representation has caused some surprising controversy from the far-left who cry “cultural appropriation!”, however I see this criticism as rather ridiculous. There’s an immense respect Clements & Musker hold in making this film and its representation, considering they did five years of production research and consultancy with members of the South Pacific, including production retreats to Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti. Moana’s star Auli’i Cravalho in her first feature is of Native Hawaiian descent, her co-star Dwayne Johnson an American of Samoan descent, Aaron and Jordan Kandell Hawaiian twins, and the Oceanic music group Te Vaka compose certain songs. Disney has come far and away from its films of the past that are just laughably wrong, and I applaud Disney under John Lasseter’s leadership for giving us something so utterly likable and rare.
Moana does fall into some of the minor traps of previous Disney films like Big Hero Six (2014) though, which admittedly left me disappointed. The length needed to be trimmed down; some of the emotional moments that propel the story nowhere were as palpable as they needed to be; a resolution that feels too quick theatrical for its own good, however there is still a lot of quality for everyone in this film. There’s inspiration here, and films with this kind of heart and soul are deserving of viewing.
This is where I would finish my review with a bombastic concluding solo, but just add chalk plus nails and you’ll get the picture.
Dwayne Johnson is a firm believer that voice-acting is the most difficult career in acting, and is personally annoyed by celebrities being cast in animated films despite their bad delivery in voicing their characters. When Johnson was cast for the film, he repeatedly asked the other voice-actors present if he was indeed giving a good performance.