There is no doubt that one name dominates film in this modern day and age. Mikey Mouse’s paws have a hold on Star Wars, Marvel and The Muppets, as well as the more traditional Disney properties like the Princess Pantheon. Disney has faced criticism over their films with critics arguing that they promote gender-based and racial stereotypes, not to mention a lack of diversity and a wish-upon-a-star method to life. However, with their latest features, the “Imagineers” have sought to address these issues; Frozen was about female empowerment and had an emphasis on the love between sisters and Zootopia (or Zootropalis) focused on issues of race in a simple yet effective way. Their latest effort seeks to represent a set of cultures not fully explored by mainstream Hollywood film, the islands of the South Pacific. The question now becomes, does Moana sail new seas or does it end up a castaway on an inhospitable outcrop of rock?
Directed by industry legends John Misker and Ron Clements, Moana follows Moana Waialiki, the daughter of Cheif Tui. Though she is born and raised on a small island, she dreams of sailing on the open ocean. However, her father keeps her on the island ignoring the warnings from his own mother about a life-draining curse that was unleashed when the demi-god Maui stole the magical stone heart of the mother-goddess Te Fiti. When her own island becomes infected by this curse, Moana must journey to find Maui to restore the heart of Te Fiti and save her island.
Disney is an old hand at making these types of films, so we are provided with an exceptionally good quality looking film. While the character designs are suitably cartoony and kid friendly one has to commend the animators for the breathtaking visuals of the world and the way the cameras interact with the world. The water is almost photo-realistic, and it is clear that there has been development on what Pixar did with Finding Nemo 13 years ago, which is critical for a film like Moana as it takes place mostly on the vast ocean. There is a great use of atmospheric effects, mist, smoke, fire and the like, to make the world feel real, living and breathing. The film is a tropical paradise, where joy and warmth radiate off of it.
Similarly, the animators, have given over time to think about how the camera behaves in the world. There are some great uses of pull-focus, which are never needed in an animated film, but here they are used to fantastic effect. The camera bobs up and down with the boats, and feels like a physical object in a real world. This can be seen especially during the song We Know Where We are when the camera feels physically attached to these boats cruising the tropical see. Not only does this provide a great deal of spectacle, but also weight and texture to a film made up of 1s and 0s.
The film is a visual feast, but what of the plot and characters, a film that is all style and no substance is just empty calories. Moana is kind of a typical Disney film; a princess wants more out of life, goes on a quest and discovers who she is by the end of the movie. Moana, played with a great amount energy by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is headstrong, stubborn and smart. One can see a bit of Ariel, Belle and Jasmine in her construction. Maui is cocky and childish but also a deeply caring individual and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson definitely plays him with a roguish swagger that is appropriate for the character’s start, but whether he sticks the landing during his the end of Maui’s arch is questionable. The supporting characters are great; Alan Tudyk is fantastically wasted as an idiotic chicken, while Jermaine Clement brings his best Bowie to the film’s mini-boss, a glittery crab called Tamatoa.
When talking about a Disney film you have to talk about the songs. Written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda the soundtrack combines pop, Broadway and South Pacific culture. The songs are fun and go some way to contribute to the story, character development and culture. They will probably be stuck in your head after just one listen. My favourites have to be the already mentioned We Know Where We Are and Tamatoa’s song Shiny, which I seem to be humming intermittently annoying anyone around me.
Once you get past the film’s simplicity and optimism, which can be a little grating on a twenty-something-wanna-be-grumpy-old-man, the plot of the story is great fun. There are different and interesting physical, emotional and psychological adversaries for our characters to overcome, though while the culture explored is new the rest of Moana felt as though as it was retreading old ground. However, I will say that some plot threads did feel underdeveloped and lost, which may have been a result of the re-writes that went on after Taika Waititi. Moana is formulaic, but it is a good formula that will keep you entertained.
There are clear ideas addressed within the film, and one can see that it is firmly an anti-isolationist piece and one can see how commentators have
seen this film as feeling very important especially now. Many critics have also pointed out the slight insensitivity of the film in regards to Polynesian people, and while I can see a vast oversimplification of a culture that spans from New Zeland to Hawaii, with countless islands in between, it provides an important first step.
While I am clearly not the target audience for the film, I definitely had a great time. Moana joins the ranks of Disney princess movies, a spot also held by Mulan and the underrated Princess and the Frog. It’s not breaking any new ground with its basic story, but it does serve to push a significant personal and societal message. It also represents, though all too briefly a rich and exciting culture that has perhaps not had the exploration it deserves in mainstream film, and I for one am very interested to read more of the myths of the South Pacific as well as look out for any films produced by the peoples there.