Moana (2016)

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Hold on, what is this? A new Disney film that isn’t related to an already existing Disney property? I can’t believe it! With recently released and upcoming remakes and reboots of some of the studios biggest hits taking up the majority of Disney related news of late, before even knowing anything about Moana, I was instinctively more inclined to be favourable to it purely because something original was coming my way. Add to that the news that genius Hamilton creator and future saviour of the world Lin Manuel Miranda was musically involved, and my expectations were through the roof.

And for the most part, Moana lives up to the huge hype that I burdened it with. The film tells the story of Moana Waialiki (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter and heir of the chief of a small Polynesian island. In typical Disney fashion (think Mulan, Brave, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid), Moana’s lust for life and desire for adventure beyond her island’s reef puts her at odds with her parents, but when the crops begin to fail and fishing becomes scarce, the young voyager takes the plunge and sets off (complete with archetypal comedic animal sidekick) on a journey to find a long lost demigod called Maui (voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) and to right a thousand year old wrong that will bring better fortunes to her people. The first thing to say is that the film is beautiful, both aesthetically and narratively. Though I will always favour the golden days of hand drawn animation, the creators at Disney have done something really special with Moana, using vivid colours to bring each and every frame to life. The ocean is an important aspect of the story, and in its motion and rendering, the expanse of water literally becomes a character in its own right and it is quite extraordinary to witness. Lin Manuel Miranda injects hints of his signature sound and musicality in to the picture’s soundtrack, with slightly more complex lyrics and arrangements than were showcased in Disney’s last song filled offering, Frozen.

That is not to say that everything is completely perfect. Moana begins superbly and finishes superbly, but there is a stretch in the middle of the narrative that feels very different, tonally, to the rest of the picture, a stretch where poignancy and subtelty are overlooked in an attempt to give the story its quota of ‘classic Disney high jinx’. Subplots involving sentient coconuts and a giant crab with a penchant for shiny objects are without doubt the weakest moments in the film, and whilst they are still enjoyable on a visual level, one longs for the narrative to get back to the core themes of family, destiny, self worth and ambition that are found in the central adventure shared on the wide ocean between Moana and Maui. In Moana, Disney has given a new generation of fans a strong, independent animated female protagonist to connect with akin to the likes of Mulan, Brave’s Merida and Pocahontas in previous years, a character who isn’t afraid to break out from her box and be more than she thinks she can be. Moana would have been a great character in any time, but her youthful, ambitious, feminine strength is something that I really enjoyed seeing on the big screen given the rough political climate that has taken over much of the world this year.

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Making her feature film debut, Auli’i Cravalho gives a great voice performance as Moana. As is the custom with these modern Disney ‘princesses’, the character possesses equal amounts of sass and elegance, and Cravalho boasts the kind of voice that is entirely relatable yet at the same time mesmerising when she bursts in to song. She is far from delicate, she is strong and determined and that essence of her character is equally important to hear in the voice as it is to see in the animation. As demigod Maui, Dwayne Johnson plays a sort of lovable, powerful fool, at first unwilling to help Moana in her quest but eventually proving to be an irreplaceable companion. Though he doesn’t boast as impressive a set of pipes as his younger co-star, Johnson’s one solo effort evokes a similar sort of charm as Danny DeVito does in Hercules.

Overall, in a year filled with high profile animated features, Moana takes my personal prize for best of the bunch. Its excellent musical soundtrack and stunning design are the cherries on top of what, underneath all of the technical brilliance, is a moving and inspirational story about overcoming the odds, testing your limits and finding an inner strength that you never knew you had. It might take a detour in to a touch of silliness in the middle third, but it never loses its charm and the strong beginning and end make up for the slight tonal confusion at the half way point. I can easily see Moana taking a seat beside Frozen as one of Disney’s most beloved modern pictures. Definitely a future classic.

 

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