There is a magic to Moana that is much more than the sum of its parts. It thrums quietly beneath what you watch onscreen – the loveable Moana, the scene-stealing demigod Maui, the stunning visuals – and occasionally surges to quicken your heart or give you goosebumps.
It is only at the end that the beauty of what Disney has achieved with its latest animated offering washes over you: telling a story that uses the quintessential Disney princess elements, but piecing them together in entirely new and exciting ways.
Coming at a time when Hollywood is increasingly being called upon to shed stereotypical portrayals of gender and race, Moana embodies the alchemy that can happen onscreen when filmmakers choose to go beyond these norms.
In terms of gender, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the Disney princess we’ve been waiting for: A natural evolution from Belle’s curiosity to Mulan’s courage to Anna and Elsa’s strong sisterhood.
Animated to look more realistic than her hourglass-shaped predecessors, Moana is closer to her Pixar cousin Merida (from Brave) – both in appearance and attitude.
Here, when Moana heads into the ocean, it is not to find love or to run away, but rather, on a quest of her own. A subtle change, but an empowering one that reframes the traditional princess as a hero.
A chief’s daughter in ancient Polynesia, Moana is forced to contend with a curse that is threatening life on her island. To stop it, she breaks with generations of tradition and sails out in search of the one person who can help, the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
It is a relatively straightforward plot, almost too much so. But it is this very simplicity that gives Moana its mythic feel, enlivened by the way its creators weave in the culture of the South Pacific islands.
Disney apparently set up an Oceanic Story Trust to ensure the movie would honour and respect the culture of the South Pacific people, and the dedication pays off.
There is a power to the setting of Moana that we haven’t seen from Disney in years, if ever – power that comes from both a celebration of and respect for the Polynesian culture it features. And when the story sails its way into an unexpected ending that feels exactly right, it becomes not just the story of one girl, but the story of a people.
Perhaps best of all, Moana achieves all of this while also being a gorgeously entertaining movie that has something for audiences of all ages to enjoy. Johnson’s Maui is likely to be hugely popular with the kids, and his interactions with Moana make for some of the movie’s most enjoyable scenes. The subtle way in which he embodies a distinctly Polynesian identity, too, is very clever.
Meanwhile, Disney takes animation to a whole new level with its spectacular depictions of the ocean in its various moods – there are visual set pieces in Moana that will amaze even the most jaded moviegoer.
The only letdown, perhaps, is the music. While the coming together of Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i results in an emotive score layered with traditional Polynesian sounds, there are few numbers that linger.
How Far I’ll Go, Moana’s theme song, is lovely, but unlikely to join the ranks of Ariel’s Part Of Your World or Elsa’s Let It Go as a classic. For pure exuberance though, Johnson deserves props for Maui’s introductory song, You’re Welcome. The most enduring number, and perhaps fittingly, is We Know The Way: an uplifting anthem performed by Foa’i and Miranda, which sings of Moana’s people and their history.
In the end, Moana’s true success lies in the fact that it has managed to take an often-criticised yet hugely profitable formula and not only reinvent it, but turn it into an example of the heights a film can reach when inclusiveness and diversity are done right. And that is the kind of movie magic we could use more of.
Director: Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall
Voice cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement