I want to say right out of the gate that Moana (directed by John Musker and Ron Clements) is a good movie. However, it seems likely that the film’s emphasis on its Polynesian cast and culture will cause it to resonate much more strongly with some people than it did with me. I am always happy to see non-European cultures represented in movies and this was no exception. Beyond that basic assessment, I will not be commenting on the film’s treatment of Polynesian culture in great detail because I am a white person with no special insight into the culture in question. If this element of the film interests you, I encourage you to find a reliable source that engages with the film’s treatment of Polynesian culture (preferably by a writer who actually has some connection to the culture). Now, onto the elements of Moana that I am equipped to discuss.
The plot concerns young Princess Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of Island Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). Moana is being groomed to take over as her island’s chief but her heart yearns for adventure beyond the confines of her remote home. Moana soon finds out that her people’s food supply is starting to dry up because shape-shifting demigod Maui (The Rock) stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti. It is with this knowledge Moana sets out to replace the goddess’ heart and save her people. She ends up taking Maui on as a reluctant ally and, since this is a Disney production, she is paired with a comically stupid chicken that is readily merchandisable.
My first impression is that, while the film’s songs are satisfactory across the board, they do leave something to be desired. Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is absolutely great and a number of Moana’s songs do a fine job of stoking excitement and emotion in the audience but the set list is really lacking a show stopper in the vein of “Let it Go” to bring the whole thing home. Perhaps this is good, as I am not fully prepared to have another Disney song reach the level of pop culture ubiquity that Let it Go reached. There is also “Shiny”, which is the worst song of the bunch and acts as a blemish on an otherwise consistently agreeable catalogue of songs.
The film’s structure is another area in which it is likely to be found wanting when compared to Frozen. It feels like we spend a little too long on the island in Act 1. The film spends a good amount of time setting up a conflict between the ever adventurous Moana and the stern, protective Chief Tui. This father and daughter relationship is compelling stuff early on but it unfortunately Musker and Clements lose sight of this conflict once Moana leaves the island. Chief Tui exits the film at the end of Act 1 and doesn’t return until the very end. I understand that it is tempting to stay on the island for a number of reasons. By settling in to the island as a defined physical space, the filmmakers want Moana’s eventual liberation from the island to make a greater impact on the viewer. Once again, I am tempted to make a comparison to Frozen, which proved that you don’t have to spend a lot of time in a location before a character’s dramatic exit to have a profound emotional response from the audience. All of this time spent on the island makes Acts 2 and 3 feel somewhat compressed. It is hard to discuss without spoilers but there are a couple moments that feel like they could have benefited from some breathing room later on in the film.
What does make the liberation work is just how great of a character Moana turns out to be. Ostensibly, she is incredibly similar to Frozen’s Ana. She’s plucky and headstrong but dreams of a world beyond the one that she has known all her life. The two main differences are Moana’s self consciousness and physical ability. Ana has the gusto to attempt to climb a mountain only to find out she’s completely incapable of such a feat whereas Moana will climb a mountain with speed and vigour. Its nice to see a heroine who is not only unafraid to get her hands dirty but also shows noticeable competence when doing so.
Moana’s self consciousness ties into the film’s larger themes of authenticity. Part of what makes the drama of whether or not Moana will leave the island compelling is that she actually has a really good thing going there. The people love her, she’s good at her job and nobody is questioning that she will lead her people effectively. In addition, she fails the first time she attempts to leave the island. This contributes to Moana questioning whether or not it is worth it to leave the island even though it is important to her. It should be no surprise that the film’s conclusion is resoundingly pro authenticity (which they even manage to work into the finale in a very interesting way). Admittedly, I almost wish Moana did not have the impetus of saving her people causing her to leave and that the film allowed the stakes to be entirely emotional and character driven.
The film’s other protagonist fairs just as well in the compelling character department. Dwayne Johnson is in fine form as Maui, an arrogant demigod who really just wants people to love him. Granted, I assume that making an arrogant, muscle bound hero into a sympathetic and likeable character is something that Johnson could do in his sleep. Still, Maui is a joy to spend time with over the course of the movie and as I already mentioned, his stand alone song “You’re Welcome” is the closest thing the film has to a show stopper.
There are some other mild problems but none of them get in the way of enjoying the film all that much. For example, it robs the action scenes of some much needed tension when you realize that the ocean is helping Moana and will likely just rescue her if she or the item she is transporting get knocked off the boat (which almost happens a lot in the film’s action scenes). Also, it’s hard not to be distracted by the adorable coconut pirates that turn up in act 2 just to make sure Disney sells more plushies than any other company on Earth. These are nitpicks though. Moana is a great new character from an interesting new world that I would ultimately be happy to see Disney return to again. If you’re a huge Frozen fan (as I am, if that is unclear) adjust your expectations slightly and have a great time.