Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
Cast: The voices of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement
MPAA Rating: (for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:53
Release Date: 11/23/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 22, 2016
"If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess," the demigod sidekick/comic relief tells the protagonist. This heroine, who technically is a princess of sorts (the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe), doesn't take too kindly to the title, and as well she shouldn't, especially in the context of an animated musical. There are certain implications and expectations that come with the role of a Disney Princess, and perhaps the most revolutionary thing about Moana is not only how it breaks those ideas but also how it barely even acknowledges them. This princess has more important things to do.
Like so many princesses that have come before her, Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho) dreams of and yearns for something more than the life she currently has. She's stuck in place, though, by the weight of family and tradition. Unlike so many of those other characters, Moana isn't drawn to action by the appeal of romance. In fact, there's not even the narrative promise of a love story here. If there are any worthy suitors on the island she calls home or in the great expanse of the world outside that island, the screenplay by Jared Bush doesn't care. The movie likes its protagonist just the way she is.
There's a lot of reason to, as well. The plot follows the traditional arc of similar fare, so, yes, Moana wants more out of her life, finds resistance from the people around her, fights against it, and sets off on an adventure in which the fate of more than just her life hangs in the balance. The character, though, is more-than-capable in a way that only a few of the Disney Princesses have been. When it comes to the areas in which she comes up short, she's quick to learn and master the required skills.
Apart from a dopey chicken that can't even properly perform the simple task of eating, her main sidekick is Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), a demigod who has lost and is trying to regain his powers. He becomes her teacher, but despite his supernatural powers, even he knows that Moana has to do her own thing. During the climax, he steps aside: "I've got your back. You go and save the world!" It's not just an empowering rallying cry, either. Moana is, really, the only character here who can save the world.
Until the start of her adventure, Moana has lived her entire life in a small village on an island in the Pacific Ocean. The sea has called to her since she was a toddler, especially after hearing the myth Maui's failed attempt to bring a glowing green stone with the powers of creation to humans.
The dream has been encouraged by Tala (voice of Rachel House), Moana's grandmother and the village's "crazy lady." Meanwhile, her father Chief Tui (voice Temuera Morrison) extols the virtues of staying put—of finding happiness where one already is. Moana has a responsibility to the tribe, her father says, since she will become chief one day (In a refreshing way, our heroine's situation is basically a win-win one: Whether she stays or leaves, she's going to find herself empowered in some way). In the best of the movie's mixed bag of songs (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina), she puts her conflict—between tradition and the call of the unknown beyond the horizon—to music.
The plot involves the stone that Maui stole, and its absence is wreaking havoc on the natural order of things: The island's coconuts are rotting, fish have disappeared from the nearby water, and great storms are approaching. Moana believes she can find Maui and, with his help, return the stone to its rightful place. Using a sailing vessel of her ancestors, she sets out to just that.
There's a fairly sturdy formula involved in the plotting of these movies, and despite its efforts to reinvent the archetypal princess, Bush's screenplay doesn't stray too far from the rest of that formula. Maui becomes the typical comic sidekick—an egotistical supernatural figure, whose abundant tattoos move with the music, as he sings of his legendary trials and heroics. They meet a couple of weird characters along the way—a crew of coconut-shell pirates (featured in a swinging, energetic action sequence that exists for no real reason) and a hoarding giant crab named Tamatoa (voice of Jemaine Clement), whose song about decorating his shell is a showstopper in the sense that it halts the movie's momentum. It all moves forward down a predictable path.
It's a shame, because these are two rich characters, whose full potential shines briefly throughout the movie, before they return to the roles required by the plot (The revelation of Maui's tragic past, in particular, is just a way to offer a momentary, routine low point prior to the final showdown with a giant lava monster). Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (with co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams), as well as the movie's computer-animation artists, clearly have put a lot of effort and artistry into recreating the vast waters and exquisite lands of the Pacific, too. As a result, Moana looks lovely, and it gives us a princess we really haven't seen before. Those elements are surrounded, though, by too much that's all-too-familiar.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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