The Subtle Grace of Disney’s MoanaAs a lifelong Disney fan, I’m well-versed in themes that permeate many of the studio’s films. This is especially true when it comes to princess stories. The lead character is sometimes a bystander in her own film. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect example. The actions of the fairies, Phillip, and Maleficent truly set the course of Aurora’s life. She’s largely passive despite the film’s title. We’ve seen updates to this model in the past few decades, though heroines from the Disney Renaissance still were driven by the love story. Belle and Ariel are more active characters yet still aren’t independent of the old constructs.
Recent films like Tangled and Frozen have made progress in subverting the obvious love story, especially the latter film. Anna wants to find a guy, but she has no life experience and has made assumptions from reading stories. This brings me to Disney’s latest film Moana, which sheds a lot of the beats we expect from this type of movie. The quest to save the world is a familiar hero’s journey, but it feels new without the unnecessary subplots. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is a strong and likable teenager that wants to make a difference; it’s easy to get on board with her story.
Moana is headstrong but has reasons beyond her personal need to experience the water. It’s rebellion against her father’s (Temuera Morrison) ways but with a purpose. His restrictions don’t connect to her gender or age either; in his view, everyone should stay on the island. Like he sings in “Where You Are”, the selling point is the place, not the social construct. Chris Jackson (George Washington from Hamilton) takes the singing duties for Chief Tui and does amazing work. Given the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, it’s no surprise to have Jackson involved.
The soundtrack’s other main songwriter is Opetaia Foa'I, who was born in Samoa. Miranda and Foa'I (along with Mark Mancina) build a collection of tunes that work brilliantly and complement the story. I could list almost any song as a highlight, but the one that really sticks with me is “We Know the Way”. Performed by Foa’I and Miranda, the song nails home one of the key themes. The image of Moana and her people sailing into the unknown while the song plays brings chills. Its return during the finale reinforces that Moana’s quest is about more than saving the world. She’s also working to bring the spirit of exploration back to her people.
One of the reasons that Moana connects is the diverse cast, which includes the voice of Hawaii’s Auli'i Cravalho as the lead. We also have Temuera Morrison and Rachel House, who both spring from Maori descent. Dwayne Johnson is a huge star, but his Samoan background also connects to this story. Johnson is the right choice to play the larger-than-life Maui, a self-absorbed demigod that is the key to Moana’ quest. Johnson (aka The Rock) even gets a chance to sing the memorable “You’re Welcome” and call out Maui’s huge contributions to this world.
In typical Disney fashion, the story gives Moana a few silly companions. They’re less grating than the normal examples, thankfully. One is a dim-witted chicken that delivers some big laughs. The other is actually the water itself, which gives Moana much-needed assistance. Bearing a surprising resemblance to the alien water creature from The Abyss, this being gives a few nudges to help its chosen one. Moana is yet another hero that’s uniquely qualified for this quest, but that point isn’t heavy-handed. There are no messiah moments. In fact, her love for the water does separate Moana from her people. It doesn’t feel like a stretch for her to be the choice.
Another key relationship is between Moana and Gramma Tala (Rachel House) — kindred spirits that both stand out from the norm on the island. We’ve seen this type of character in past Disney films (particularly Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas). However, the way that Tala approaches Moana with a little bit of mischief helps her feel new. She offers sage advice but also lets the girl find her own way. Tala’s final scene comes at the right time and veers away from just following the “wise old sage” trend. House’s deft voice work makes Tala click as her own character, not just as a helper for Moana.
What’s also refreshing is the lack of constant in-your-face jokes. With the exception of obvious peeing in the ocean gags, it’s more laid back than standard family films. A well-cast Jemaine Clement does get a lively scene as the giant crab Tamatoa. His performance of “Shiny” wouldn’t feel out of place on a Flight of the Conchords album. I also enjoyed the nod to Mad Max (and maybe Waterworld?) in the brief encounter with the Kakamora pirates. These energetic scenes help to make the 103-minute running time flow quite easily.
I have two young girls and have seen quite a few family films with them. Most are pleasant but don’t stick with you for very long. Moana is one of the exceptions where my opinion has grown stronger the more I think about it. The songs are still bouncing around in my mind. Directors Ron Clements and Don Musker led Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and they understand how to shape an effective tale. In this uncertain post-election haze, it’s refreshing to experience such a beautiful and graceful film. There’s a joy in taking this journey, and I can’t wait to see it again.