While 3D technology keeps evolving, Disney keeps sticking to its roots. Another Disney film, another Disney princess. But don’t worry, the film is self-aware about it too, because the girl Moana doesn’t think herself a princess. But hero Maui knows what’s up. Only the environment is different. No old European castle here, but a Polynesian island. It’s a little seen culture in our cinemas. This year’s animation The Red Turtle also featured Polynesian myth, but Moana molds it into a nice Disney fairy tale.
But hold on, the story isn’t just about some girl destined to do something and all’s well that ends well. As the audience, we’re never entirely sure that Moana is The One and can do The Task. It seems like it at first, just like every other hero and heroine she sets out to do the Important Thing. But this film is most of all about identity and finding out what your identity is. Therefore, the role of princess is rejected by Moana and the role of prophesied ruler or savior is also not totally endorsed by the film. The climax of the film is also not about her big Task, but about her identity – who she is supposed to be.
The songs (yes there are songs in the film but they are bloody catchy. I loved them); the songs are part of the story of Moana trying to figure out who she is and what she should do. At first, the songs are meant to rouse our emotions (and they do), because they underscore the passions that Moana is feeling. But as the story progresses and Moana keeps wondering whether she is up to the tasks that are kinda forced onto her, the songs return to connect with her quest of figuring out who she is. As far as storytelling goes, this role of the songs in the telling is very good.
It is especially beautiful that a story about identity is set in a Polynesian setting, because those cultures are rare, small and in danger of extinction. Islands are swallowed up by rising seas and populations are swallowed up into western societies. One of the songs is performed in a Polynesian language that is spoken only by a couple of thousand people on the planet. Identity is a sensitive and valuable thing, and Moana couples it to a coming-of-age tale of a young woman.
The one thing that didn’t really work for me was a giant crab character. It felt out of place, the song didn’t work for me and it wasn’t really funny or exciting for me. It might work for others. And another thing, in the first 10 minutes in which the story is set up, I was annoyed by Moana’s father going on about that the island is safe and that we cannot go beyond the reef, blablabla. That was just so standard and weak. But other than that, this movie is gorgeous and adorable. Moana is a fully realized person, and Maui is great as well. Both are voiced by very talented people, and who knew that Dwayne The Rock Johnson could sing?
The thing that I love about Polynesian stories is how connected they are to the natural world; to the open ocean, to beautiful sea creatures, and volcanoes and jungle. Moana looks like a paradise, full of elementary forces that shape the world. It is the most gorgeous looking film of the year. So yeah, beautiful, rather simple in its setup, but still expertly executed and a full recommendation from me.