VOD film review: Moana
Ivan Radford | On 17, Apr 2017
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, Chris Williams
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison
Watch Moana online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
In the age of Star Wars being owned by the House of Mouse, the definition of a Disney Princess has never been more thrillingly open. Where once, the term referred to a damsel in distress in a castle tower requiring rescue from a prince, it can now potentially refer to any female lead in a Disney movie, regardless of romance – a Disney Princess can be the sisters of Frozen, who care more about each other than blokes, or Merida in Brave, primarily concerned with the relationship between her and her mother. Moana, our latest Disney hero, trumps the lot: hers is a story of self-discovery and self-empowerment, in which she saves the day, not to mention her male co-star.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the tribe chief on the Polynesian island of Motunui. While everyone has their role in society, though, she’s drawn to the water, called by the horizon to go and explore. Naturally, her father (Temuera Morrison) refuses her request to go sailing past the barrier reef – even when the supply of fish starts to run out in the safer, closer waters. But Moana is chosen by the sea, by the spirit of nature goddess Te Fiti, to venture from the island, bringing her heart (stolen by a demi-god, Maui, years ago) back to its rightful home.
There’s a wonderful simplicity to the tale that makes it universally uplifting, while still allowing for oceans of rich depths: her quest evolves into a meditation on the environment, the value of respect and the importance of understanding the history of your own identity – Moana’s grandma (Rachel House) is an endearingly meddlesome matriarch, who still remembers the tribe’s seafaring past.
But it’s the way that it’s told that makes Moana such a joy. Jared Bush’s script finds room for all manner of eccentric entertainment, from a cameo by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa, a villainous crab obsessed with shiny treasure, to Moana’s pet chicken, Heihei (a squawking Alan Tudyk), who is gloriously stupid. Dwayne Johnson is audibly enjoying himself as Maui, whose tattoos alone are a work of art, as they chart the demi-god’s achievements over his rippling pecs; he’s a walking humblebrag, right down to his patronising “You’re Welcome” song, penned by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The music continues Disney’s knack for diving into another culture and embracing its sound and style, without feeling like lazy appropriation; contributions from Oceanic group Te Vaka fuse with Miranda’s Broadway-catchy numbers to make for some adorably positive sequences, mostly notably Moana’s own solo theme, How Far I’ll Go, which repeatedly resurfaces to puff some wind in her sails. The visuals, too, feel simultaneously old and new, from the superbly clean lines of an ocean overflowing with personality, which recalls the hand-drawn past of directors Ron Clements and John Musker (think Aladdin’s Magic Carpet), to the hilarious stop-motion-like physicality of the Kakamora, a horde of tiny coconut pirates, who are as cute as they sound.
The result is an adventure that feels somewhat slight, compared to the epic heights of Frozen, but deceptively so: this is closer to the more intimate scale of Brave, not only because both are rare House of Mouse films not to feature a romantic interest. There’s also something of Kubo and the Two Strings in its love of myth and magic; both charming animated outings begin with sequences of people recounting legends to enraptured audiences, celebrating imagination, creativity and the individual drive it takes to paint those into reality. They would make for a great double-bill: Moana is also, at its heart, a story about story-telling. “You’re in a dress and you’ve got an animal sidekick: you’re a princess,” she is told at one point, but Moana is refuses that label and instead writes her own narrative, charting out a bold new map on which to explore. One thing is clear: she’s going to go far.