Moana (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2016)
Just when you thought your kid might have stopped singing ‘Let it Go’ for five minutes, along comes another Disney princess film with another killer soundtrack. Brace yourselves for ‘How Far I’ll Go’ which is repetitive enough in its own three minute version (and its reprise – there’s no escape). But you’ll secretly love it right?
On the small island of Motunui, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is chosen by the ocean to retrieve the heart of island goddess Te Fiti, a stone that was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) a millennium ago. Against her father’s wishes Moana sets sail to find Maui and return the stone, encountering an evil crab (Jemaine Clement) and the evil but kinda cute Kakamora (coconut pirates) along the way.
The list of Disney princess films is long, but Moana stands out for cutting at least some ties with Disney tradition. In addition to being only the second Disney princess film with an original story (after Pixar’s Brave), Moana is the franchise’s first Polynesian princess, and there isn’t a love interest in sight. The circumference of her waist remains problematic, but progress tends to be gradual.
There is so much to be said for this film. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker know how to make an animated hit, with their previous work including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog. Moana is their first fully computer-animated film and visually it is sublime, showcasing the beauty and power of the ocean and its islands, not to mention Moana’s rockin’ locks. The voice cast –are strong, with fourteen year old Auli’i Cravalho a vocal powerhouse. Even The Rock surprises with a decent performance, with some calling it the best of his career (but considering his CV that might not be that hard).
The songs are the highlight, written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda with Opetaia Foa and Mark Mancina. In addition to the Golden Globe nominated ‘How Far I’ll Go’, highlights include ‘You’re Welcome’, ‘Shiny’, ‘Where You Are’ and ‘We Know the Way’. If Miranda ends up winning an Oscar for Best Original Song he becomes a PEGOT winner (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), an achievement only ever reached by two other people. Bow down.
The story, with its focus on the Polynesian people and their stories, is quite simply lovely, even if it is still fairly formulaic. While the animation and the music provoke awe, there are few surprises in terms of the narrative. But where the film is let down is in its screenplay. While seven writers are credited with creating the story, only one, Jared Bush (Zootopia) is credited with the screenplay. It isn’t great. For one, compared to many of Disney’s other recent films, it just isn’t as clever or funny. The deranged chicken may entertain the kids, but he’s no Olaf, and his schtick gets old fast. The biggest problem, however, is the constant repetition. There are only so many times audiences need to be reminded that Moana and Maui are searching for the stone, and it seems Bush has underestimated kids’ ability to follow a basic plot, rehashing this point to excess. Conversely, much of the film is spent on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and that may cause young viewers’ attention to wane. Even this thirty-year-old reviewer zoned out a few times. In terms of entertainment value, it’s no Frozen.
Despite this weak spot – and let’s face it, screenplay is pretty important – when you add up all the elements, there is much to admire in Moana. The exquisite animation, a strong female protagonist, the absence of a love interest, a (mostly) culturally sensitive story with Polynesian actors in all primary roles (bar the stupid chicken), and a beautiful soundtrack, all make Moana a worthwhile watch. Brace yourself for the onslaught of ‘How Far I’ll Go’ or better yet, use it to your advantage to make your kids into Lin-Manuel Miranda/Hamilton fans. There’s no beating him.
*This review was first published at Film Blerg. After seeing it a second time I would raise my rating to at least 4 stars. The screenplay didn’t appear anywhere near as weak and I’m putting my initial feelings down to the fact I was coming down with a cold and that I had to wear those bloody 3D glasses that make everything darker.