Disney's Moana reunites directors John Clements and Ron Musker for the first time since 2009, when they co-directed Disney's last traditionally hand-drawn animated feature The Princess and the Frog, which also happened to be the studio's first film to feature an African-American protagonist. Moana digs into some similar terrain with its titular plucky, unconventional heroine (Auli'i Cravalho) who hails from an island in ancient Polynesia and bucks tradition at every turn, although one can't be faulted for noticing the film's immense similarities-at least in its opening half hour-to another Clements-Musker collaboration, 1989's The Little Mermaid, the box-office hit that resuscitated the studio's flailing animation division.
In fact, the first part of Moana plays like a land-sea inversion of all the issues in the first part of The Little Mermaid, with a princess who doesn't necessarily want to be a princess pining to explore a part of the world from which she is forbidden by her stern, but loving father. In the earlier film, the mermaid Aerial longed to be part of the world outside the ocean, a desire she expressed quite memorably in her song "Part of Your World," whereas Moana wants the opposite: Mired on the same tiny South Pacific island where generations of her people have lived and thrived in a closed, but seemingly happy community, she yearns to explore the open ocean, a desire she expresses quite memorably in her song "How Far I'll Go." Both protagonists leave their familiar world behind and end up way over their heads, although their misadventures ultimately result in both a renewed appreciation of their roots and a wider understanding of the world. The key difference, however, is that Aerial's desire to leave her watery domain is driven primarily by romantic love, whereas Moana is driven entirely by a desire to save her island, which is slowly dying.
The reason the island is dying is explained in the film's prologue, which introduces us to the character of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a devious, shape-shifting demigod who steals the heart of the goddess Te Fiti (which looks like a tiny green stone) and gives it to humankind, which results in his being stranded on an island without his powers for 1,000 years. Encouraged by her eccentric Gramma Tala (Rachel House), Moana comes to believe that she is "the chosen one" who can save her people by setting off across the ocean, finding Maui, and forcing him to sail with her to the other side of the world to return Te Fiti's heart. Maui is, of course, less than enthused about his mission, and much of the film's comedy and warmth derives from the budding odd-couple pairing of Moana, who is so sincere and determined, and Maui, who is restless, self-centered, and conniving (his song "You're Welcome" is both an amusing paean to his own self-understood greatness and a devious con to trick Moana). Numerous mini-adventures ensue as the sail the ocean blue, including a dive deep into the "Realm of Monsters" where they must confront Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), an enormous, google-eyed crab-monster with a fetish for shiny things who has Maui's magical fishhook-the talisman that gives him all his powers.
There is a lot about Moana that is extremely familiar to those who know the Disney formula (screenwriter Jared Bush, working from a story concocted by dozens, also penned Disney's Zootopia), but it is tweaked with enough consistency and humor to make the trip worthwhile. Dwayne Johnson follows a long line of comedic superstars-beginning with Robin Williams's frenetic turn as the Genie in Aladdin (1992) and cemented with Eddie Murphy's sarcastic dragon in Mulan (1998)-to lend their vocals to a scene-stealing secondary character, and his work as Maui is quite fantastic. Maui's enormous, hulking, tattoo-covered body is a barely exaggerated animated version of the man formerly known as "The Rock," and the animators have given his face and eyes many of Johnson's trademark devious glints. He's a lovable scoundrel who takes just enough attention to be memorable, but not so much that we lose sight of Moana, the film's true hero.
Eschewing romance, Moana goes after the kind of challenging hero's journey that is typically reserved for male characters, which marks Moana as a cut above so many animated films that are more than happy to continue sidelining their female characters or giving them token moments of power that quickly fade (it is also nice to see that Moana has a body shape that is much closer to reality than most animated females, whose wispy waistlines and tiny feet defy physics). Oh, and it doesn't hurt, of course, that many of the songs were written or co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the all-encompassing musical force behind the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway juggernaut Hamilton. And I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the bug-eyed, intelligence-deprived chicken that accompanies Moana on her journey who is much funnier than any chicken not being discussed by Werner Herzog deserves to be.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Walt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
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