Disney's Moana - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
VISUALLY stunning but narratively basic, Disney’s Moana is nevertheless a highly enjoyable family movie that doesn’t suffer too much from adhering to formula.
Co-directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, and featuring songs that were co-penned by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Moana is – at its heart – a princess story made fresher by its decision to use Polynesian mythology and culture as a backdrop.
It means that audiences of all ages can marvel at the lush Polynesian backdrops, even if they may increasingly get the feeling that they have followed the narrative’s trail many times before.
The Moana of the title is, after all, a teenage princess (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) who keeps on finding her passion for adventure curtailed by an overly protective father and king, who forbids her to sail beyond the reef surrounding the picturesque island on which they live.
Moana eventually defies her father, of course, having been encouraged by her more free-spirited grandma, and sets out to save her home from a curse that has been plaguing many of the surrounding islands ever since a demigod named Maui stole the goddess’s fertility-giving heart-stone.
Moana intends to find Maui so that he can return the stone. But while tracking him down proves relatively easy, encouraging him to do the right thing is less so, particularly as he has lost a magical fish-hook that enables him to transform into other animals and thereby take on a volcanic monster who is protecting the passage to the stone’s return.
As with most Disney films, there’s a sidekick on hand (in the form of a scatter-brained chicken), as well as plenty of songs to give things a lift whenever the pace threatens to sag. One particularly memorable number, called How Far I’ll Go, could well be this year’s Let It Go (Frozen‘s big tune), especially given its structural similarities.
And just like other classic Disney tales (from Tangled to Frozen), the main partnership between the princess and her helper is volatile at first, only to become warm and fuzzy as the inherent goodness of the princess melts the hearts of all around her.
The two big differences are the lack of a romantic co-lead, given that Dwayne Johnson’s Maui is much older than his young charge, and the absence of a striking villain. For while there is a fierce monster to eventually tackle, there isn’t a persistent nemesis to continually place obstacles in this pair’s path.
This, in turn, does create some narrative problems and causes the pace to flag at times (the film does feel overlong at almost two hours).
But Rusker and Clements also have a few aces up their sleeves. First and foremost, newcomer Cravalho provides an endearing central presence, mixing determination with the vulnerability of youth, while the ever-charismatic Johnson is a nice foil for her (he even gets a song).
The aforementioned visuals are frequently as beautiful as they are spectacular, while a couple of the set pieces revel in their ability to excite and offer some knowing visual references. Primary among them is a sequence involving a flotilla of mini coconut pirates who offer an exhilarating, Mad Max-style chase, while the climactic tussle between Maui, Moana and a vengeful fire god is frought with peril.
Jermaine Clement’s turn as a singing crustacean baddie is typically odd and kind of fun, while there’s even a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo from a Frozen favourite. Moana certainly can’t be faulted for visual invention.
It’s just that it could have taken a few more risks in its storytelling, thereby falling some way behind the more daring likes of Zootropolis and Big Hero 6 in what it’s trying to do and say. Here, the messages are obvious and safe, in the classic Disney sense.
And while that’s no bad thing, Moana somehow feels like a lesser film for it when compared to some more recent animations. Enter with that in mind, though, and there’s still plenty to leave you feeling enchanted.
UK Release Date: December 2, 2016