Solid if not quite spectacular effort from Disney. If nothing else I’m happy that I watched it at the cinema, because this movie really is exceptionally beautiful – and that’s saying a lot because complimenting an animated film on visuals is like complimenting big blockbusters on special effects: what doesn’t look great, these days? Yet the Polynesian-inspired world of Moana really does feel special and magical, or maybe it’s just that I can’t watch gorgeous tropical scenery and not think, I need a holiday and I so want to be there.
The story and the characters by comparison don’t stand out as much, and instead simply put a new gloss on the well-worn Disney tropes that the movie is both happy to use and wants to poke fun at. A young protagonist with a cute animal sidekick who yearns for the world outside their home goes on a journey of self-discovery… sounds familiar? Here, Moana is a teenage daughter of a chief who is destined to some day rule the small island her people live on. Moana’s heart however belongs to the sea and its wonders, against her tribe’s tradition of never venturing beyond the reef. The only person who understands Moana is her eccentric grandmother, who has a similar affinity with the sea and encourages her granddaughter. Soon however the island falls under the curse that’s been unleashed a long time ago when Maui, a demigod and once a benefactor to Moana’s people, stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, disrupting the natural order of things and unleashing a terrible lava demon. The heart has been lost in the sea during Maui’s escape, but now the ocean itself chooses Moana to take the heart to Maui so that he can return it where it belongs.
Moana got much praise for its modern-day take on a female protagonist, and yes it is great that we can now have stories where a heroine’s gender is a complete non-issue. It’s also good to have romance-free stories for variety’s sake, though I’m not down with the view that a lack of romance for female characters is now the One and Only True Way, period. This however doesn’t negate my issues with the film, chief of which is that the characters’ personal conflicts and obligatory moments of self-realisation often have a mechanical, by-numbers feel to them, and so fail to be truly moving. I could almost see the screenwriters go, ok we’re approaching the third act so we need to insert a Dark Night of the Soul moment… here! Moana, while spunky and brave and ticking all the right boxes as a role model for kids, is a teensy bit bland. Also, personally I’m just not that fond of the type of story where a character goes on a quest to get a thing to a thing conquering obstacles on the way, video game-style. Having the sea as Moana’s ally drains tension out of the story where she spends most of her time at sea, which can help her out pretty much any time she’s in a pickle. Finally, while pleasant on the ear the film’s songs aren’t what you’d call memorable; parents the world over may loathe Let It Go with a passion of hundred suns by now but no one can deny its catchiness.
Though probably not high on a repeat value for me, the movie was still fun to watch; the interactions between Moana and Maui are entertaining and Dwayne Johnson does a great job with the voice work for his cocky but charismatic character, whose giant ego of course hides a well of insecurities and sadness. The animators do some fun clever things with Maui’s big-and-burly character design, with his many tattoos acting almost like a whole separate character. Moana’s animal sidekick gets an amusing spin – at first you think it’s going to be her adorable pet piglet but instead she spends most of the film accompanied by a remarkably brainless chicken, who is a rather inspired comical creation and provides most of the film’s laughs. There’s also an unexpected resolution concerning the film’s villain which in retrospect was totally coming but still managed to surprise me, and ended up being quite beautiful. And as mentioned before the visuals are just divine.