Film Review: Moana

by Lachlan Anderson

Rated PG. Starring Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House. Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker.

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, then you’re a princess,” the demi-god Maui quips to chieftain’s daughter Moana in the newest Disney princess musical, Moana. Walt Disney Animation Studios have experienced something of a renaissance in the last few years and they have arguably caught up with their Disney-owned cousins Pixar in terms of quality and tongue-in-cheek confidence, as we see from the quote above. The Polynesian flavoured Moana follows this year’s highly praised Zootopia and is the Mouse House’s first princess musical since 2013’s Frozen.

Moana (Cravalho) lives an idyllic life on her island paradise as the Chieftain’s daughter, but her pull to adventure often goes against her father’s rule that no one venture out onto the ocean. When the island begins to die, Moana sets sail to find the egotistical Demi-God Maui (Johnson) and have him return to the Gaya-like mother island Tafiti and restore her heart, thus saving the ocean and all the islands.

It’s hard at first watch not to compare the film to the hugely successful Frozen, which inspired legions of little girls to don princess outfits and belt out Let It Go until their parents were well beyond sanity. Whilst that film had the songs to hold it up, it suffered from more than few faults, which Moana corrects. It’s a hugely charming film, helped in no small part by casting someone like the Rock as Maui. 16-year-old Cravalho, in her first film, also shines as the naïve but determined Moana. In fact the creators have taken great care to cast an almost entirely Polynesian cast, which also includes Kiwis Jermaine Clement, Rachel House and Temuera Morrison. In fact the only non-Polynesian actor is Alan Tudyk who clucks for the entire film as the non-verbal chicken Heihei. Even New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) got in on the process as an early draft writer.

A Disney musical needs great songs, and Moana delivers on that front as well. The songs, co-supplied by Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of Broadway smash Hamilton, are even better than Frozen’s, which relied heavily upon Let It Go. Songs like “We Know The Way” and “You’re Welcome” burrow themselves pretty deep in your head, like musical ticks.

As far as Disney films go though the script is par-for-the-course and is a bit slow to start. Once we meet Maui, though, it’s fairly smooth sailing. The lack of any romance between the two leads is a nice change as well. A sixteen-year-old and a demigod of more than 2000 years is just a bit weird. Plus this way Moana really gets to shine as her own identity – something Disney has been building toward in the last few years.

The Verdict: Moana is a smart and confident way to round out Disney’s animation year and maintain a run of great films. It boasts solid songs, charismatic leads and a thoughtful approach to a culture that spans an entire ocean. The hero’s journey is nothing new but a good reminder of persistence and sacrifice. Definitely one to take the kids to this school holidays. 4/5

Moana releases in Australian cinemas December 26th. It is already screening in the USA.

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