I remember when the Disney execs thought that nobody would go see an animated movie with a supposedly feminine title. Because who in the preteen male demographic would care about princesses, right? So it was that Rapunzel was renamed Tangled and The Snow Queen was renamed Frozen, and both were given virtually nothing in terms of promotion. In spite of this self-sabotage, Tangled has steadily grown in popularity and Frozen was an instant world-conquering smash. After so many billions of dollars and a couple of Oscars won, it seems that Disney Animation has finally — FINALLY — gotten the hint that we really do want to see empowered female protagonists in our movies.
Given this history, it’s kind of a big deal that Disney Animation released Moana, a movie named after its female lead. And in keeping with Disney Animation’s recent winning streak, it’s quite a good (albeit flawed) picture.
An expository prologue introduces us to Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a trickster demigod who stole a magic stone containing the essence of Te Fiti, the mother island. With this stone, he had stolen the goddess’ ability to create life, and had hoped to impart this knowledge unto mortals. Unfortunately, such a powerful artifact was highly sought after, and Maui was waylaid by the lava demon Te Ka. In the ensuing battle, the heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s magical fishing hook (the source of his own godlike powers) were both lost, and Maui went missing.
Flash forward a thousand years, to the island paradise of Motunui. Here we meet Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), daughter of the island chieftain (Tui, voiced by Temuera Morrison). The two of them have a relationship that’s basically Finding Nemo by way of Pocahontas: “You’re the daughter of the chief and you have responsibilities, so don’t you dare leave the island and go out sailing where it’s not safe.” Clichéd, to be sure, but there are a number of reasons why it works.
First of all, we see that Moana was actually befriended by the ocean itself back when she was just a child. You may have seen it in the trailers, how the ocean sort of plays with her. But then Moana actually tries her hand at sailing and she just about nearly dies. So there’s the question about just how friendly the ocean really is to her, and whether she merely dreamed the whole thing.
Additionally, there’s the question of why Moana would ever dream of leaving Motunui when we can clearly see for ourselves that it’s a Pacific Island utopia. More importantly, Moana herself is shown to be a naturally competent leader, and the villagers very clearly need her. Especially when things inevitably start going south.
(Side note: Tui also has a tragic backstory to explain his insistence that nobody go out into the open ocean, but it’s lame and tacked-on and so pointless that I don’t know why they bothered.)
Quickly, we learn that the islands are all dying out because the mother island won’t sustain them. Nothing will grow or survive unless Te Fiti’s heart is restored. And because Maui is the one who took it out, he’s apparently the one who has to put it back.
To accomplish this extraordinary feat, the ocean has seemingly chosen Moana. It even gave her Te Fiti’s heart at the outset. Why? We never get a definitive answer, but Maui offers a speculative reason that’s actually quite clever. And anyway, if it means that we don’t have to suffer through another narrative in which the protagonist is simply chosen just because, I’ll take it.
But then there’s the matter of the ocean itself. It’s so very tempting to mention all the millions of plot holes that may crop up, considering that our protagonist has 75 percent of the world’s surface on her side. That said, it bears remembering that Moana doesn’t command the ocean. Moreover, the ocean itself never said anything about being friends with Moana or even what it’s really doing with her. (The ocean never speaks at all, in point of fact.) We’re talking about a force of nature, one that’s always been notoriously capricious and mysterious. The ocean can be playful just as it can be dangerous, and go from one to the other on a dime — this much we all know already. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but in context, the filmmakers totally make it work.
Unfortunately, the other sidekicks don’t fare nearly so well. Moana has a pet pig named Pua, but it’s left on the island and barely has any screen time at all. The far more prominent animal comic relief is Heihei, Moana’s other pet. While the rooster doesn’t talk, his bucks and screeches are provided by Disney Animation favorite Alan Tudyk. And this comic relief is thoroughly unfunny and useless. He is indubitably the dumbest character in the history of Disney. And that’s not me saying that, that’s co-director Ron Clements saying that. Luckily, they’re all more or less pushed out of the picture by Maui’s tattoos, which comically serve to communicate what he’s really thinking and act as his conscience.
This brings us to Maui, who’s voiced to perfection by Dwayne Johnson. Here’s a character who’s completely full of himself, but he has the strength and accomplishments to back up his ego. His heart’s in the right place, even if his good intentions lead him to act stupidly and contribute to his arrogance. He’s a sincerely charismatic character who comes to learn humility and remember what made him a hero by way of our protagonist. That may not be anything new, but Johnson totally sells this role and his interplay with Cravalho is fantastic.
Oh, and Maui also lampshades a couple of Disney Princess tropes, so there’s that.
This brings me to Moana, who’s definitely more of the same empowered female protagonist we’ve seen in recent Disney Animation pictures. She’s smart but headstrong, independent yet brash, and she complements the male lead without being entirely dependent on him. And she doesn’t have a romantic interest, which is a plus.
So much of what makes this character work is due to Cravalho, who does a fantastic job of bringing this character to life. She’s also a huge factor in how effective the songs are — when Cravalho sings “How Far I’ll Go” (the centerpiece “I Want” song of the soundtrack), it soars. When Alessia Cara (whomever the hell that is) sings it over the end credits, it falls apart. The songs are all sadly subpar, and not a one of them stuck with me after leaving the theater. The presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda is very keenly felt, and I’d hate to have seen the state of this soundtrack before he came on.
(Side note: He’s still gonna win an Oscar and EGOT this motherfucker. Just you wait — just you wait.)
Another welcome presence is that of Jemaine Clement, who briefly appears as a comical minor villain and composed a song for the character. It’s an awkward kind of dogleg in the story, and the character’s illustration of the “beauty is only skin-deep” cliche is terribly blunt, but Clement is more than entertaining enough to make it work.
That’s really what it all comes down to with this movie: It’s cliched, but it works. The plot is predictable, hitting every single prescribed story beat like clockwork, and there’s nothing here in terms of theme that we haven’t already seen in a million other family pictures. Yet the pedestrian plot somehow makes the legitimately funny jokes and the genuinely surprising moments that much more effective. A fine example concerns Te Ka — he looked and acted for all the world like some two-dimensional uberdemon without any motivation to speak of, until a twist in the climax that was really quite ingenious.
Moreover, even as predictable as this film was, it still managed to create a palpable sense of tension in places. There were times when I was honestly quite eager to suspend disbelief and entertain the possibility that something awful could potentially happen. And that’s pretty much entirely due to our two lead characters, their delightful voice work, and the sterling animation.
(Side note: A quick word is due to “Inner Workings”, the short film that preceded this one. It’s more or less a different take on the premise of Inside Out, in which we see a literal conflict of mind and heart. It’s okay, but inviting comparisons to Inside Out would be kind of a stupid move for anyone.)
Moana gets by on the strength of its presentation. The story is pretty threadbare in places, but the lead characters are interesting, the setting is vibrant, the animation is gorgeous, the action is satisfying, and the comedy is effective. Damn shame about the uneven soundtrack and the useless animal sidekicks, though.
This won’t be the next Frozen, but it’s not like we needed more than one. For better or worse, there’s very little risk of hearing anything from this movie ad nauseam like we’re still hearing “Let it Go” in our nightmares. But if kids get another animated role model like Moana, I’d be perfectly fine with that. This is definitely a film worth seeing, but your mileage may vary on whether the 3D premium is worth it.