2016’s been unkind at the best of times; we’ve lost innumerable icons and all but abandoned our collective sanity over political melodrama. While the year keeps delivering swift blows to the ribs as we lay already defeated on the ground, Disney seem intent on fighting back, giving us even a momentary reason to smile. With Zootopia(tropolis in England) and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book raking in almost $2 million between them in the first quarter of the year, Moana could quite easily have been overshadowed by its celebrated predecessors– instead, we get an entire year of outstanding films and a nice crescendo at the end to give us a little grin before the festive period.
Contrary to Moana’s initial premise (which was entirely centred on the Polynesian demigod Maui) the film explores the tale of the Chief’s daughter, Moana, who is in-line to become the Island’s first female leader. She feels limited on Motonui, where she’s repeatedly told that she mustn’t travel beyond “the reef” despite wanting to forge her own identity after being drawn to the sea. She’s torn between the ocean and her people; a respect for tradition and her own want for adventure. It turns out the ocean and the need to save her people are too compelling, leading her on an adventure where she finds Maui, the now hook-less demigod whose storied past is emblazoned across his body in traditional Polynesian tattoos with a mind of their own.
Dwayne Johnson’s talents are well-documented, and as Maui he’s given room to flex his dramatic, comedic and actual muscles, playing off newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as they set out on their trying journey to break the curse. Despite being a demigod, Maui feels like an exceptionally human character – his flaws are increasingly apparent, and despite his swaggering arrogance, his need to impress humanity is the very thing that’s destined to doom them.
Moana’s childlike hopefuleness completely contrasts Maui’s shallow search for gratification, and she’s constantly challenging him. Despite being a debutant in a Disney film, Auli’i Cravalho shows no signs of apprehension, gracefully jumping headfirst into one of film’s most layered female characters in recent history. She’s exceptional, showing an inherent knack for timing and emotion – it’s easy to believe that the character was moulded around her and her infectious personality, but Moana’s character was almost entirely designed by the time Cravalho was chosen as the voice of Disney’s latest leading lady.
One of the most important components of a Disney film will always be its music, and luckily for Disney, Lin-Manuel Miranda who, off the back of his supremely successful and critically fellated musical masterpiece Hamilton, has leant his talents to a number of ditties on Moana’s soundtrack. The almost over-bearing adoration for 2013’s ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen was an understandably difficult task to follow, and whilst “How Far I’ll Go” might not hit the same levels of ubiquity in households with a child under the age of 10, it does a damn good job as the film’s empowering anthem. There’s a strong balance between the traditional anthemic Disney ballad and the celebration of the film’s Polynesian heritage, seamlessly marrying the two.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson adds another talent to his ever-expanding repertoire by showing his pipes on the self-aggrandising “You’re Welcome”, with Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement offering a Bowie tinged materialistic crab anthem in “Shiny.” It’s one of the most diverse and eclectic Disney soundtracks in recent memory, written with the understanding that it’s almost always going to be compared to Frozen.
If Rapunzel and Merida’s hair were feats of animation excellence, then Moana’s Polynesian paradise is the superlative. The animation is consistent, crisp and a glorious exploration of the tropical greens and blues of Polynesia. The film is worth seeing just for the water, and I understand what a ludicrous statement that is, but the detail is meticulous, the fidelity is obscene; it truly is something to be marvelled at, and Disney prove once again that not only are they triumphant in the writers’ room, but they also blow everyone out of the expertly-crafted, better-than-real-life water.
Moana signifies an even further step away from the Disney Princess tales of old, giving the world another trail-blazing female not content with the archaic formula we’d been accustomed to. Bravo, Disney.