Be swept away by Disney’s new feisty Polynesian teenage rebel princess
By Nora Lee Mandel
(1 hr 47 mins, rated PG, released November 23, 2016)
Once upon a time, the people of proto-Polynesian Oceania sailed the oceans for thousands of years. They stopped for a millennium, then 2,000 years ago they again took to boats, discovering and settling among the 30,000 islands throughout the Pacific Ocean. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 56th animated feature mines a different culture’s carefully researched legends, myths and traditions to joyfully bring us a feisty new Hollywood teenage rebel princess.
In venturing outside written tales, Disney animation stalwart directors Ron Clements and John Musker searched from Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and on to New Zealand for authentic inspiration. To avoid accusations of cultural appropriation, they formed the kind of advisory board seen on NEH-funded projects that they dubbed “The Oceanic Story Trust” of anthropologists, educators, linguists, expert tattooists, choreographers, haka specialists, master navigators, cultural advisors, and evidently a botanist to be sure they got the 60 species of plants right.
They created “Moana” (which means “ocean” in many of the Polynesian languages), first introduced as a toddler, then a young child, to see that she’s the Ocean’s “Chosen One” to lead her people away from the coming blight to their paradisaical island. At 16 years old she’s voiced by native Hawaiian Auli‘i Cravalho, who has just turned that age, and cannot accept the sailing restrictions set down by her father Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison, one of the best known actors of Maori descent).
For a Disney change, the mother isn’t dead! But Sina (voiced by Nicole Scherzinger, of the Pussycat Dolls, a pop group I’ve never heard) is supportive, but barely registers. Instead, Moana is mentored by her wonderful Gramma Tala (voiced by native Maori actress Rachel House, a delight in one of my favorite films of the year Hunt for the Wilderpeople) who literally throws conformism to the winds, laughing at her image as “a crazy old lady” to dance when and where she wants. She reminds me of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella whose “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” was my fave Disney song as a kid. She similarly has the magic to call up the spirit of The Ocean (represented by a water blob, unfortunately, played more for laughs than magic) for her granddaughter’s quest. It’s a relief that “Moana”s animal sidekicks, her pig Pua and the dumb rooster Heihei don’t talk human, though we’re told that Alan Tudyk voices the chicken.
After she discovers her people’s ancient and glorious trans-oceanic boats, she sets out to find the mischievous demigod who caused the problems and is needed to solve them. Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is Samoan) proclaims his half god, half mortal status in the terrifically catchy song “You’re Welcome” that is sure to earn the disapproval only of the kind of evangelicals who disapprove of Harry Potter books and movies:
So what can I say except "You're welcome"
For the tide, the sun, the sky
Hey, it's okay, it's okay, you're welcome
I'm just an ordinary demi-guy
Be prepared to have that sung back to you every time you say “Thank you” to a kid the next few months! The same Puritans may object that his huge chest is covered in tattoos, symbolic ones that are animation-within-animation. Others object that his large size to accommodate their movements is a Samoan-stereotype.
Their “wayfinding” on the ocean scenes did make me sorry that Disney didn’t show the New York press the 3D version. I appreciate that this navigation from nature (including ocean currents, sun movements, and stars position) is shown, not as some mystical inspiration, but as a skill to be passed on and learned – and that this spunky girl flouts tradition to demand to learn it. The repeated song “We Know the Way” is the second best. I was a bit uncomfortable with her flirtatiousness with Maui (as implied in one of the stills, above, that Disney made available to the press) that came close to romantic, so I was relieved that did not go further.
Their quest allows for several fun characters (and new characters to market products!) The “Kakamora” are coconut-armored pirates (presumably scrupulously researched fruit) on big ships for an amusing encounter, though they look like a Lego set even before they really will be a Lego set. Then on to “The Realm of Monsters”. “Tamatoa” is a self-absorbed 50-foot crab with Kiwi comic actor Jemaine Clement voicing and singing a cute, kind of stoner song “Shiny” –
and compares himself to “Sebastian” in (the directing team’s) The Little Mermaid, one of several jokes aimed at the adults who should also be in the audience. He feels more like he’s out of Alice in Wonderland. Stay through the credits to see his final joke.
Warning to parents of very young kids: the duo also have to get by the scary 200-foot-tall lava monster Te Kā, where you may have to hold on to your four-year-old for reassurance. He hearkens back to the classic Disney scenes with the tree branches in Snow White and “Night on Bald Mountain” in Fantasia. Hence the PG rating.
The soundtrack features seven original songs, plus two reprises, as well as two end-credit versions. Half are quite hummable, and a couple memorable, via an unusual collaborative trio: Samoan native Opetaia Tavita Foa‘I, of the band Te Vaka (I’m a world music fan, but I never heard from their eight albums.); Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton, who has become Disney’s millennial in-house songwriter, adding to baby boomer Alan Menken; and Mark Mancina, whose music here leans more towards his bland Tarzan. When Miranda is heard near the end of the credits reprising the best song “You’re Welcome!” his more hip hop rhythms are even better than Johnson’s original. Moana also has anthems, including “We Know The Way”, written and performed by Opetaia Foa’I and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and “How Far I’ll Go”, the Golden Globe nominated song written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and performed by Auli‘i Cravalho:
Those songs don’t quite live up to Frozen’s -- but that’s a high bar. Moana is still a lovely, fun movie for children and grown-ups.
NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.