It’s nice to see Disney moving away from the habit of marrying off its 16-year old girls. With this modern generation, the more waterproof the princess the better. Woops – sorry, Moana is not a princess. She’s the chief’s daughter and future leader of the island community; but if you ask her, she’s definitely not a princess (even though the animal sidekick is solid confirmation). If we need to call Moana anything let it be courageous, stubborn, open minded, and fearless like a squirrel in a strong breeze. Can you say the same about Snow White?
Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) lives on an isolated island in the Pacific with the happiest villagers from central casting. As chief in training, she helps pass on her peoples’ culture, advises them on where to plant trees, and where to catch fish – so long as it’s within the circle of the reef. No one travels beyond the reef. But venturing into the open ocean becomes more of a necessity than a craving when the island’s resources begin to die. Legend has it that the island goddess, Te Fiti, had her heart stolen by the demigod, Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson). Unable to escape with the heart, Maui lost it to the ocean and was himself lost to legend. Without her heart, Te Fiti can’t maintain life on the islands, leading to their slow decay. Moana, a natural water baby, has no qualms about searching the ocean for Maui and forcing him to return the heart to save her home. Moana’s first step is to convince her father that she isn’t nuts, followed by reassurance that this isn’t a totally dumb idea.
Moana combines just the right mix of magical legends with overconfident teenage problems. Moana’s struggles are believable, even if her environment is brimming with lava monsters and demigods. The story may be a little simple, but I’m not quite bored yet of watching young adventure-seekers seize the day. Refreshingly, Moana floats by with not a drop of romance: no flirting, no prince charmings, and no talk of suitors or expiration dates. Moana has a pig, a chicken that’s dumber than molasses, an obedient ocean current, and that’s all she needs. Still, even with this quest-hungry, acrobatically proficient heroine, we get a clear warning that the ocean is three things: wet, dangerous, and overpopulated with Mad Max coconuts.
We learn all of this on the adventurous road to Te Fiti island – a magical place. Moana isn’t just rowdy and engaging, it’s also dazzling. The colours, textures, and movements are soft and brilliant. I was blown away by this artistic masterpiece you can barely call animation for it being so clear and precise. Moana’s wild, soggy hair is oftentimes so realistic I thought they snuck in a live frame to fool us. But the colours and the gentle lighting are so magical you know this can only be the work of master animators. The overall tone of Moana, what embraces the adventure and magic, is tender and enchanting, from trees, to open ocean, to a rainbow chicken stuffed in a boat hatch.
And who would have thought the ocean has a sense of humour? Moana makes up for the missing Olaf by bringing together a chicken, anthropomorphised water, and a demigod’s tattoo that doubles as his conscience. Although the quest is relatively serious, Moana, Maui, and their enchanted crew are spirited enough to make light of just about anything. It also helps when the characters are snapping ridiculously catchy songs at each other. Disney has finally gotten around to answering the generational question: when the characters sing, are they actually singing? Why yes, apparently they are. Characters warn each other when they’re about to drop into musical exposition. As Scar would say: Be Prepared. Be prepared to pop your headphones in and awkwardly hum “You’re welcome” at passing strangers.
No evil aunts, no dress making, no cleaning house with the local wildlife – Moana is all about duty, courage, and trying not to drown. Similar to Brave, Moana feels steeped in ancestry and culture, putting a Disney lens on islanders who live to dance, fish, farm, and tell stories. Moana looks back while moving forward, and in the animated world it easily deserves a 9/10.