Well, blow me down and call me Maui. I’ve just seen a Disney film that didn’t make me want to vomit! Moana is the latest in Disney’s don’t-call-me-princess brand of girl hero movies. The animation work is truly stunning, while the setting takes the brand into new cultural territory, celebrating the cosmology and traditions of Polynesia.
I’m a hardened Disney cynic, but I was swept away by Moana’s translucent seascapes and glittering night skies. The life-like textures of woven baskets, coconut husks and flowing curly locks showcase the immense possibilities of today’s animation techniques. The characters are likeable and there’s a notable absence of any romantic subplot, allowing the fine, fierce Moana to save the world largely on her own, without being married off in the last scene.
Moana is the curious and tempestuous daughter of an island chief, who protects his people by banning them from travelling beyond the reef surrounding their self-sufficient homeland. When their dietary staples of fish and coconuts start to disappear, Moana learns of a terrible curse placed on the region in ancient times. The ‘darkness’ was caused by a demigod – Maui – who stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti; and here we mean literally stole her heart in the form of a greenstone amulet. To save her people Moana must venture across the seas to hogtie Maui and insist he return the stone.
From this base, we’re treated to an enjoyable, if predictable, oceanic adventure, complete with infectious soundtrack, quirky animal sidekicks and wise ancestral spirit guides. Moana (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho) is physically strong and emotionally courageous; a worthy addition to your child’s Disney doll collection. Maui (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) is a muscular mixed bag of god and goofball, with body art that acts independently of its canvas.
The journey’s bad guys are frightening monsters of the deep, including a fiery volcanic beast that might freak out younger viewers. Fans of Jemaine Clements’ consistently quirky brand of sinister voice work (think Nigel in Rio) will love Tamatoa, a crafty coconut crab with a thing for bling.
The film’s wider themes are common to many coming-of-age stories, like Brave and Tangled, with teen Moana breaking away from parental expectations and leaving the safety of home to find herself. This typical Disney story arch is part of what makes the princess genre so appealing to younger girls, looking ahead to this stage of their own lives. Here’s a sample…
So far, so good. BUT … there’s always a but. While this is a charming take on Pacific Island culture, it still sits safely within the bounds of what we’d ever expect from a great thumping commercial production entity. Disney has perused the smorgasbord of Pacific belief systems and filled a plate with their preferred bits and pieces; if you’re looking for authentic cultural storytelling without coconut-covered stereotypes, you might be best to choose a different dining establishment.
But cultural dodgy bits aside, Moana is a dazzling holiday movie with a kick-ass heroine. See this with your 7-12 year olds, not your toddlers (too scary), and use it to start a discussion about characters, creation myths and coconuts. If you’re lucky enough to live near a beach, take a moment to honour the ocean on your way home from the flicks.