Gorgeous animation and infectious songs raise 'Moana' above and beyond the predictability of its plot
“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” the snarky demi-god Maui Dwayne Johnson) tells Moana, the titular heroine of Disney’s newest smash-hit animated feature, which, along with the box-office behemoth Zootopia should be sending shivers down Pixar’s spine. It’s a solid assessment of what makes a Disney Princess™, who now come in every size and shape imaginable, though who rarely want the gig. While not technically a princess, Moana being raised to take over as chieftain from her father on the island paradise in the South Pacific they call home, she’s set to become the newest inductee into the royalties lineage that has become a billion-dollar franchise within the House of Mouse, with the earliest marketing of the film warmly embracing their diverse new star, plucked straight from the minds of John Musker and Ron Clements, creators of The Little Mermaid, who essentially made the entire princess model a part of our world.
Despite having a new heritage, Moana doesn’t fall too far from the princess tree. Like Ariel and Belle, she longs for adventure, stifled by the duties of community on her lush and idyllic island paradise. Will she squabble with a concerned parent before sneaking off on an adventure she brashly thinks she’s prepared for, but which will change her along the way? Of course she will, and when Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho reaches the key change in How Far I’ll Go – almost certain to bag Hamilton writer Lin-Manuel Miranda the O in his inevitable EGOT, even if it’s not as instantly catchy as Let it Go – you’ll be willing her on just as much.
Moana is an infectious merging of old-school Disney storytelling with cutting edge design, a pleasing and richly imagined family film, chock full of the kind of toe-tapping tunes you’d get in a solid Eurovision year. The plot sees Moana’s island home Motunui, once chock full of ripe coconuts and fish, struck by blight and empty nets. Learning her people were once wayfarers winding their way through the waves, Moana, chosen by the sea itself in a sequence that should remind parents to never take their eyes off toddlers near water, sets sail for her destiny, on a mission to return a mystical gemstone to the fertility goddess Te Fiti. First she’ll have to learn the ropes – meaning if the cut of Annalise Murphy’s jib wasn’t enough to get Irish girls out on the sea, Moana might finish the job – the would-be mariner will have to first convince vain demi-god Maui to help her.
The actors, particularly Johnson, whose singing voice deftly bounces over the comedy number You Are Welcome, bring everything they can to well rounded characters, with plenty of visual comedy thrown in by their sidekicks – a danger-prone chicken for Moana, a tattooed version of himself for Maui, sporadically popping up on Maui’s inked muscles like a protein shake-swigging Jiminy Cricket who knows the quickest way to your heart is through pert pecs.
The adventure, set largely on the open seas, follows a fairly rote three-quest structure, but the set pieces are jam-packed with dazzling visuals and upbeat music, packing in a scene-stealing glam rock solo number from Flight of the Concords’ Jermaine Clement, a psychedelic black-lit nod to fluorescence that wondering just where Clement has been for the last five years.
Not all of the jokes land and older viewers might find the inconsistency of the sea, a maritime equivalent of the magic carpet from Aladdin, a little capricious over when and where it decides to lend a hand. But the satisfying mix of colour, adventure, and the lack of any kind of romantic subplot gives Moana a freshness that belies its stale story.
Moana (PG/123 mins) is released nationwide on December 2nd, with the Disney short film Inner Workings playing beforehand.
Verdict: ★★★★☆ Between the gorgeous animation and thrilling set pieces, Moana, like its infectious songs, is impossible to resist and brightens up winter with bursts of energy