When a movie comes in off the wave of as much media attention and positive hype as Moana did, it is perhaps easy to automatically seek out the flaws – although I never understand how some people seem to immediately discredit things that have enthusiastic mainstream attention- and it gives me great joy to be able to say that cynics will have to look elsewhere this time. Watching Moana, I couldn’t find a single thing worth criticising. Granted, Im a sucker for anything Disney and anything Lin Manuel Miranda (oh my god we will get to the music later on) but this movie has put me in a good mood that might just last my whole life (no hyperbole here!). The familiar Disney tropes return, ever as cheesy and ever as effective, but with a refreshing spin that has earned Moana predictably high ratings and rave reviews. Just as a general disclaimer, I’m talking about Disney so this is going to get excited and cringey- click away now if you think this might perturb you. (I’m probably going to use the word ‘frickin’, a bunch)
GIRLS DOING GOOD STUFF AND NOT JUST FALLING IN LOVE!
First off- girl frickin power!!!!! A Disney movie where a girl saves herself/her people/the entire world (nice!) with her own intuition and courage, AND without falling in love along the way- who would’ve thought?! I’m just as much a hopeless romantic as the next soppy teenage girl, but it’s exciting that finally Disney have created a female heroine that lasts a whole movie without even mentioning a ‘prince charming’ because, and this might come as a surprise, girls don’t need to have a prince charming to save themselves/their people/the entire world. Disney are on a bit of a pretty great roll of strong female leads, but it seems with Moana they have finally got it completely right. COMPLETELY. I’ve stated it. And while Moana does seek the help of an older, more experienced man (slash-Demigod) she is the one who ends up teaching him how to be the hero he wants to be by sharing values of selflessness and courage. So, thanks to Moana, Maui goes from an entitled and arrogant literal big man, although always loveable, to the gentle but oh-so brave star we see towards the end of the movie. Like I said, girl frickin power. I am 100% here.for.this.
On top of the general girl power thing, it’s pretty cool how girls who aren’t white and blonde now have another princess they can identify with and look up to. (Tiana was great, I know, I love her too, but didn’t she spend half the movie in a below-minimum wage, manual job, and the other half as a frog? Go figure.) Moana is the daughter of a Polynesian Chief, and the movie celebrates the culture and mythology from which it is derived, without any of the cringe-worthy, borderline racist, stereotypes these films so often accidentally indulge. It took some time but Disney have finally pushed the boat out (pun intended) when it comes to representation on the big screen. *Cue applause*
THE MUSIC (WHAT THE HECK EVEN IS THE MUSIC?????)
The magic of most Disney films lies in the score, and I’d be bet 10 vodka trebles from Lowther that this one earns Lin Manuel an Oscar (which would make him the youngest EGOT winner ever- having already bagged an Emmy, a couple Grammys and a few Tonys. I back him). Does everything Lin touch turn to gold?! It would seem so. The soundtrack is everything a Disney soundtrack should be- catchy, uplifting, exciting and emotional. You will be singing it the whole way home and probably for a while after. The heavy involvement Opetaia Foa’i, a Samoan musician, on the tracks means that Disney stayed on the right side of the cultural celebration vs cultural appropriation line, and that the music transports you right to the South Pacific where you’d probably rather be. Of course, Moana has the classic “I need to find out who I am etc. etc. escape all these rules etc. etc.” anthem that all Disney heroines are granted, and “How Far I’ll Go” is just as touching as it needs to be (I’ve forgotten the words to ‘Let it Go’ already). My favourite parts of the soundtrack, however, are when the Polynesian chorus joins in, in native tongue, bringing to life what one voice just can’t do alone. If you don’t get goosebumps, you probably don’t have a heart or soul, sorry.
OH MY GOSH THE ANIMATION
If you were excited by the animation of Merida’s hair in Brave, you may want to take a few deep breaths before you check out the graphics Disney have laid down on the ocean in this movie. The ocean takes on a life of it’s own in Moana as the guiding force behind her journey. It brings both comedy and as many metaphors as you wish to take from it (field day for an English student, as you can imagine), all while looking pretty much like the nicest sea you’ve ever seen in your life and making you wish yourself onto a Pacific island. The Goddess Te Fiti (essentially Mother Earth) was a visual highlight for me- she dazzles the screen (and she does take up most of the screen with her mountainous dimensions) being entirely comprised of blooming flowers and shrubbery, boasting a breathtaking glow that I actually didn’t think computer animation capable of. And while the hair may not be Merida level ‘wow’, it’s still pretty insane.
AND THE FRICKIN CAST
Well, I don’t know what the world did to deserve Dwayne Johnson, to start with. To me it seems he was completely and utterly born to play Maui- his portrayal is charming and funny and warm, just like every Disney ‘prince’ (if we can call him that) should be. Hopefully he feels somewhat repaid by his appearance in the charts with his song from Moana, “You’re Welcome”, which is one of the happiest tunes I have had stuck in my head for a while. Disney also hit the nail on the head with the casting of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana, a 16 year old high school student who, much like her character, grew up on a small and sheltered island before being thrust into a new world. (I was beginning to think Disney didn’t know how to cast age appropriate actors- thank you Team Moana!) Cravalho’s voice is an absolute gift and her energy matches Moana’s at every turn. Stars like Christopher Jackson (another Hamilton alum), Nicole Scherzinger, Rachel House and Temuera Morrison also lend their voices to the film, making for a cast bursting at the seams with talent.
If I sound like an over excited Disney fan, it’s because I am, but trust me when I say I do not give my stamp of approval lightly. If global audiences pay it the attention it deserves, there is no reason that Moana shouldn’t surpass Frozen in terms of critical acclamation. Moana might follow the tried-and-tested Disney formula of a sheltered young heroine who ventures into the unknown to learn who she is, but the execution of the familiar storyline makes this film unique to the Disneyverse and refreshingly unlike everything else we have seen. If I haven’t persuaded you to see this movie with my ramblings, there is no shortage of esteemed film critics who use much bigger words and say ‘frickin’ a lot less than I do, but still sing Moana’s praises just as loudly. It’s another Disney film that’s just impossible not to love.