Well, we’re in that time of the year again when good old Disney, through its Animation Studios, would present the latest addition to their legendary Animated Canon. After the full Disney-fication of a low-tier Marvel Comics title in 2014 with “Big Hero 6”, and giving us a relevant and thought-provoking modern fable earlier this year with “Zootopia”, they’ve decided to return to more traditional stomping grounds with their holiday offering, the princess story. But “Moana” seems to go out of its way to eschew the whole princess thing while still keeping the princess thing, if you get what I mean.
First off, the lead female character doesn’t see herself as a princess. She’s Moana, daughter of an island chief. Enter the male lead, the savvy Polynesian demigod Maui who tells her, “If you’re wearing a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess”. That statement pretty much indicates what manner of story you’ll get from this film. It’s very immersive and self-aware in equal measure, delivering a tale of exciting adventure even as it lampshades the many elements that make a Disney animated film what it is. The number of contemporary shout-outs to be found is a hoot too.
When blight threatens her island home of Motonui with starvation, Moana decides that more food and perhaps answers can be found past the reef surrounding the island, out in the open sea. This is also a personal desire of hers, having somehow made a friend of the sea in her early childhood. While his father the chief is opposed, her grandmother exhorts her to sail with an important mission: entrusted with a mysterious relic, Moana must find the demigod Maui, who had stolen it from a goddess centuries ago. Together they must restore the Heart of the isle of Tefiti.
It sounds like a conventional quest narrative but Disney as always wows the viewing audience with how must they spruce it up to be more so. Moana is the second Disney Princess to not have a love interest in her story after Merida from “Brave” (Elsa might count too, but she’s a Queen). Instead her driving motivation is to save her people by completing her grandma’s request; and her interaction with Maui is more mythological vitriolic buds on a road trip, with a side order of master and apprentice as the ageless demigod teaches her the ways of the sea.
“Moana” also shines thanks to its brilliant visual presentation. The CGI renderings are some of Disney’s best work yet, and the presentation of Polynesian culture and myths were vibrant and compelling. This is proof of the meticulous and sensitive research and development of the movie by its veteran Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements. After all, they did bring us “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” among many other entries of the Animated Canon. And well, they were so totally game with all the script’s self-awareness, even adding a seaborne action sequence that pays homage to “Mad Max: Fury Road”.
We now come to another key factor in this movie’s big heart, its voice acting. This is achieved by the genius casting of Native Hawaiian Auli'i Cravalho in the title role as Moana. Picked by Disney after turning in her voice audition last out of hundreds, she blows everyone away in both dialogue and song. Complementing her is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the smug, swaggering Maui. The studio, aiming for nuanced portrayals, has chosen voice talents of Polynesian background, save for Alan Tudyk who voices Moana’s pet rooster Heihei, who is perhaps Disney’s most stupidly hilarious animal sidekick ever.
Last but not least, let’s talk about the film’s musical score. And I must say, this is one of Disney’s finest yet. After all, it’s the joint effort of Disney regular Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa'I of the “South Pacific fusion” band Te Vaka, and Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame. While it’s too soon to tell whether any song in the film can finally overcome “Let It Go”, rest assured that they will be a delight to listen to, from the English- Tokelauan “We Know the Way” to Cravalho’s solo “How Far I’ll Go”. Even The Rock impresses with “You’re Welcome”.
It’s no exaggeration to claim that “Moana” is sure to kill it in the box office as the year draws to a close. A perfect combination of princess emphasis, respectful reverence for all things Polynesian and South Pacific, not to mention a sing-along- worthy soundtrack has resulted in one of the most memorable Disney animated films to grace us in this decade. You should try to enjoy this uniquely endearing tale with family and friends as soon as you can. After all, the next Canon entry won’t be until 2018, and it’s going to be a “Wreck-It Ralph” sequel. Aue! Aue!
Photo Credit to http://www.comingsoon.net/