Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
Runtime: 107 lovely Disney minutes
Moana is the eponymous story of a young girl embracing the ocean and defining her place in the world. It’s a story not only of adventure for the adventurer’s sake, but also sacrifice for others. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team who brought you The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Aladdin (1992), and written by Jared Bush, who also wrote Zootopia (2016), Moana takes Polynesian myth, mixes it with relatable human experience (in a way, all great myths already have this embedded), and packages it gorgeously for modern audiences—both in terms of tone and aesthetic.
In a retrospective review of 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, Roger Ebert points out something that has resonated strongly with me: “Since the earliest days, most animated films have been ‘cartoons’ for children and families.” Common in Ebert’s analysis of western children’s films – especially animated films – is the criticism that they have no regard for the scope of a child’s imagination. When it comes to creating content for children, there is too often a condescending stance taken by Hollywood and the western world. “Children are idiots and will lap up anything” seems to be the credo. It is refreshing to have production studios like Pixar and the team that handled Moana willing to prove that children can be trusted with ambitious material, much in the vein of Japan’s Studio Ghibli films. When the world is as vast as it is, imagine the wonder of a child looking up at it. Films that cater to this wonder and hungry imagination are to be appreciated.
Auli’i Cravalho portrays the titular Moana Waialiki, and I was shocked to discover that she was only 16 years old at the time of recording. Going in, I knew little about the casting, and was surprised to discover that this wasn’t a “veteran actress plays the young girl” gig. Cravalho plays a girl about her age, but she handles the role with the grace and maturity of a woman twice it. It is really her film, and she manages to own it, bringing both an inspiring confidence and a healthy amount of self-doubt to Moana, who has destiny laid out in front of her, but is ultimately trusted with a choice as to which path she takes. Moana is not subject to plot, but to her own character.
Dwayne Johnson, who was 2016’s highest grossing actor, delivers a lively and organic performance as Maui—the shapeshifting demigod (or just a regular demiguy—depending on who he is trying to shift his shape around at the time). Parts of his dialogue seem to be almost improvisational. While his place in Hollywood has been secure for some time, it is great to see Johnson tackling roles like this, as opposed to simply dressing up in fairy wings and doing his best Kindergarten Cop. It might be premature to say that a performance this energetic and steady might be on the level of Robin Williams’s Genie in Aladdin, but it draws comparisons. If you had any doubt that The Rock could be much more than a blockbuster actor, this performance should change your mind.
There are other notable performances. Rachel House, best known for her performances in Whale Rider (2002) and the films of New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, is suspiciously charming (and by design) as Moana’s grandmother—who seems to share her special connection to the ocean. She is crazy like a fox. Or a stingray. Jemaine Clement pops up as Tamatoa, a narcissistic crab that dwells in the land of monsters – perhaps the film’s most visually dazzling scenes. I didn’t recognise Clement’s voice at first, and this was the second time (the other being in season two of Rick & Morty) that I’ve heard Clement’s performance, researched it, then slapped myself when I realised “Of course it was”. The next time I hear voice acting that perks my attention like that, I am just going to assume that it was Jemaine Clement.
If the film has a flaw, it might be the deus ex machina resolution to the inevitable conflict between Moana and Maui. There is an obvious change of heart, and whilst it is explained, it is fickle to the point that the conflict arguably need not have happened in the first place, serving no other purpose than to give Moana some time alone. Oh, and sometimes when Maui shapeshifts he transforms with his magic hook, but other times it remains around. What is up with that Disney? I am really supposed to believe that this is some kind of “magic” magic hook?
Films like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin, and The Lion King (1994) were once heralded as belonging to a Golden Age of Disney. Truthfully, we are still living in that Golden Age, as Disney consistently produces classic after classic. In the air around films like Moana is the sense that you are experiencing future nostalgia. Moana is really a worthwhile experience for witnessing a giant crab voiced by Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords beating up The Rock as he delivers some incredibly sly plot elocution. Thankfully there is also so much more here.