If you haven’t seen the new Disney animated picture Moana yet, do yourself a favor and do so, even though finals are fast approaching. This tale of an adventurous, young heir to village leadership who runs away to find herself and save her people may not seem terribly original, but the way that the story is told definitely is. The film carries a powerful message about being true to oneself, and has made great strides in terms of how women and non-western cultures are portrayed.
Good lessons and social responsibility aside, the movie is excellent. The first thing to note is the stunning visuals—the dazzling sunlight on the water, the individual grains of sand on the shore, and the movement of the characters’ hair to name a few. Moana is full of tiny visual details that far surpass any other recent animated picture. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character, Maui, is a fascinating mix of 3D and 2D animation with the moving tattoos on his body, while the songs include breathtaking and inventive visual feats, serving to heighten the mood.
Speaking of songs, it is a musical movie. With a score written in part by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton and In the Heights fame, the songs have the kind of scope and drama only a writer of musicals could add. From Moana’s anthem “How Far I’ll Go” to Maui’s brash pop/rap in his introductory song “You’re Welcome” to “Shiny,” a villain number that stands out with its David Bowie and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” influences, the soundtrack is one that watchers will fondly remember long after the movie ends.
But it is not only the Miranda numbers that are impressive; the rest of the soundtrack soars with goosebump-inducing songs sung in Tokelauan, a language spoken in Tokelau and parts of American Samoa. These songs, plus Miranda’s attention for purposefully overlapping musical themes, make for a rich, layered and unified score.
As far as acting, Disney hit a jackpot with sixteen-year-old Auli’i Cravalho, who voices and sings Moana. She brings a richness and earnestness to the complex character that average teenage or even adult actors could never hope to do, while her singing, though at times revealing her youth, is as charming, beautiful and powerful as her character.
I have never been terribly fond of Dwayne Johnson as an actor, yet he voices Maui with all the fun and mischief the character requires, though at times it seemed his younger counterpart was the one more familiar with reading a script. To be fair, some of his character’s jokes were among the few weak ones in the film. All told, Johnson seems at home voicing Maui and his song “You’re Welcome,” will likely be a fan favorite for years to come.
The ensemble is well rounded, though so much of the film is spent with only Maui, Moana and her pet chicken that the minor characters only appear on screen a few times. Fans of Hamilton will also recognize the singing voice of Christopher Jackson as Moana’s father, the original George Washington in Hamilton.
As previously mentioned, the power of Moana lies in the details of how the story is told, while also breaking new ground in its portrayals of women as well as in cultural accuracy and sensitivity.
First of all, unlike princesses of the past, Moana is the only Disney princess film besides 2012’s Brave where the protagonist does not have a love interest. Instead, the movie focuses on Moana’s courage, ingenuity and compassion. Instead of marrying a prince at the end, Moana takes up the leadership of her village.
While all previous Disney “girl-power” movies focus on the struggle of the heroines proving themselves in male-dominated areas, in Moana, Disney finally normalizes the strong female lead by setting it in Polynesia, where female leadership has been much more common throughout history. There is never any question of whether or not Moana should be chief of her village, and she is expected to behave and assume the same responsibilities of a male chief. When Maui questions her, he does not question her abilities because of her gender, but rather because of her youth and naiveté. I say this is possible because of the cultural setting, and it is true.
Unlike past movies like Brave, set in early Scotland, and Alice in Wonderland in Victorian England where the cultural expectations of women at the time cannot be ignored for the story to seem plausible, Moana can shrug off the cultural and historical constraints of euro-centric stories to do make a strong female character seem natural rather than unusual.
This is not to say that stories of women overcoming gender-bias are not important, but what makes Moana exciting is that children can watch it and be immersed in a world where their gender does not define or limit what they can or cannot do, and is never considered a limit. On top of that, Moana is a proportional person! Unlike many Disney princesses with unrealistically thin waists and legs, Moana is a princess with which women young and old can identify both emotionally and physically without setting unrealistic expectations of their bodies.
As for other themes, part of what makes Moana such a complex and powerful role model is her struggle between her responsibility to herself and her responsibility to her people, and her journey is ultimately about fulfilling both. While previous heroine songs like Frozen’s “Let It Go” could be strikingly individualistic and defiant, “How Far I’ll Go” and its reprises more closely tackle the real pull of other people in the character’s life and the line between finding oneself and using what one finds about oneself to do one’s duty to the people they love.
Finally, the research into the cultural background of the film is one of the its most admirable features. The research team spent a great deal of time in the islands of the Pacific, carefully checking their story with the history and cultural traditions of the area. Unlike the questionable historical accuracy of Pocahontas and similar films, watchers can rest assured that, with a few minor exceptions, the film has been made with the truth of its cultural basis in mind.
In short, Moana triumphs not in its overall originality but in the beautiful and powerful ways it chooses to frame its story, and will likely be remembered as a modern classic.