‘If you sing, I may throw up.’If you’re an eight year-old girl, or you need to entertain one for a couple of hours, go and see Moana. If you’re anyone else – well, to be fair, still go and see it, you’ll still have fun, and you’ll still laugh and nearly-cry and absolutely marvel till your eyes get tired of the sheer wonders that animation can achieve these days, but be aware that there’s plenty of re-trodden ground here, not trying especially hard to conceal itself.
Moana’s the daughter of the tribal chief on the Polynesian island of Motunui. It’s pretty much a paradise island, and her father’s the fairly standard overly protective Disney dad. Nobody ever goes ‘beyond the reef’ that keeps their world safe and bountiful, because all that’s beyond the reef is strong seas and mayhem (feel free to see the reef as a puberty metaphor if you like). In some ways, that makes Moana a strangely linear story, especially given it takes up nearly two hours of screen time. As a toddler, a simple act of kindness to a baby turtle makes the ocean ‘choose’ her for a very important cultural mission. That’s a mission that we get laid out for us in exposition right at the top of the movie – the demigod Maui, who it’s fair to say knew how to fill his time in Polynesian legend, came a cropper when he stole the heart of the mother goddess Te Fiti and was then well and truly smitten – smote – clobbered by Te Kā, your typical volcano-god. After which, no more was heard of Maui, his magical fish hook…or the heart of Te Fiti, which thankfully for its Disney-friendliness, is a green glowing stone, not your actual beating, pulsing lump of protein. Stories have abounded ever since of a dark plague of desolation which has been creeping from island to island in the Polynesian world, and which can only be stopped when someone sails off, finds the heart of Te Fiti, finds Maui, sails him across the wide sea and makes him give back what he stole.
That’s the basis of Moana’s story, but that early act of kindness to the turtle gives us both a slightly lazy, simplistic characterisation-base, and speeds the quest along more than somewhat. Being chosen by the sea means firstly that she doesn’t have to go in search of the heart of Te Fiti – it’s given to her, first by the sea itself (which here acts more like the watery alien from The Abyss), and then by her ‘crazy’ old grandmother, who herself has a strong connection to the sea. The characterisation-base is simple – being chosen by it, she has an insatiable urge to be in or on the sea, while her father the king tries constantly to mould her into a land-loving life, and into the responsibilities that will one day come to her as queen. There’s your dynamic of teenage rebellion, giving rise to one in a long line of recent self-empowerment, follow-your-dream songs from Disney. To be absolutely sure, they’re better than the likes of One Day My Prince Will Come, and deliver a positive message for young girls in the audience, but you start to find them a little samey after a while. In particular, this one, How Far I’ll Go feels like an updating of Just Around The River Bend from Pocahontas, filtered through Tangled and Frozen – but still, there are worse things in life than a Disney princess with a self-empowered dream song, bucking male authority. There’s a good strong thread of female power throughout the movie, to be fair – both Moana’s mother and grandmother encourage her to follow her heart and her strengths, and her ultimate quest is to find a goddess and return her stolen heart. When the blight of desolation starts to affect Motonui both on land and in its fishing grounds, Moana finally heeds the call of destiny, and with a song on her lips, a lesson in the ancient Polynesian history of wayfinding in her mind, the heart of Te Fiti in her hand, a clueless cockerel in her canoe and the handy deathbed permission of her grandma, she heads off in search of Maui, the demigod.
‘If you’re wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re the princess.’This is where things start to get particularly linear – there’s not a great deal of conflict between Moana setting out to find Maui, and her finding him. That’s through another time-saving intervention from the Abyss-sea, which lands her on the island where Maui’s been idling away the centuries without much ado.
Maui, played by Dwayne Johnson, is a more troublesome prospect than most things in this easy-to-swallow movie. He starts out as a kind of proto-Trump (slightly weird shade of orange, innnnteresting hair, believes everyone loves and worships him for all the cool things he’s done for them, and has a signature song entitled ‘You’re Welcome’), but the dialogue and the light performances from Johnson and Moana actress Auli’i Cravalho, matched with a script that makes good ‘odd couple’ use of Maui’s attempts to get rid of Moana, and getting nowhere, powers the movie on with laughter as the inevitability of their mission is brought home to him. He makes one demand – before they return the heart of Te Fiti, he needs to reclaim his magic fish hook, which he lost (along with his demigod powers, including the ability to change his shape) when he was batted out of the sky by Te Kā with a punch made of molten rock.
This is only relevant because, as we say, Moana’s a very linear film. A leads to B, B leads to C, and C to D. Maui has what can be no more than an educated hunch about who’s got his fish hook (a blinged-up Bowie-homaging crab. We kid you not), and it turns out his hunch is spot on. Disney does throw pretty much the only wrinkle in the movie between deciding it’ll be the crab who has the hook and going to get it back though – the Kakamora, a bunch of pirates who… well, let’s see. If you can imagine a lost tribe of Ewoks who, for reasons best known to themselves, turned to coconuts for companionship rather than each other, you’d have the Kakamora. They appear on screen, give Maui an excuse to show off what he can actually do without his magical fish hook, and then…erm…disappear again, so as not to trouble the plot any further. Straight on to the bejewelled Bowie crab, and then straight on from there to the heart of Te Fiti, with some arguing, a little abandonment, an appearance from Force-Grandma in shimmering blue, and a fairly obvious, but suitably meaningful ending. And that’s two hours of anyone’s life done with.
At the end of which, Moana is an easy watch. The comedy works, the visuals are almost ridiculously stunning, to the point where, despite not aiming for photo-realism in terms of the character animations, in some long shots and dance sequences, you’ll forget you’re watching animated characters entirely. The script is undemanding in terms of its challenges, but then, so are a lot of Disney classics: The Jungle Book’s about a man-cub needing to go to the man-village and not wanting to go there – the resistance to, and eventual acceptance of, growing up; Bambi, Frozen and The Lion King are all simple growing-up and being yourself stories, with forest or magical or having-to-face-your-murderous-uncle knobs on. If Moana doesn’t exactly break spectacular new ground in terms of story or characterisation, it at least follows strongly in a long-lasting and phenomenally successful tradition, and – and here’s probably the key point – you’ll come out of it with a smile on your face, rather than the feeling of having been swindled by the Giant Mouse of Corporate-Enforced Happiness. You might not be singing the songs, which, with the exception of Maui’s ‘You’re Welcome’ song and the Bowie-homaging crab’s ‘Shiny’ song, are mostly forgettable, but you’ll have enjoyed the visuals, the message, the comedy, the lesson in some Disneyfied Polynesian history and awesomeness, and more or less the journey. There are a solid handful of other movies referenced along the way – from Cast Away to Pocahontas, from Star Wars to The Abyss, and there’s a reasonable feminist empowerment tale here too.
Oh, and we mentioned the jewel-encrusted, Bowie-homaging crab, right? Cos there’s a jewel-encrusted, Bowie-homaging crab in this movie. Beat that, Little Mermaid!
Bottom line, Moana’s a chuckle-worthy entry into the Disney catalogue, and when it’s released on DVD and blu-ray, you’ll probably buy it, because like most Disney movies, it’s more than good enough to bring some light, some colour, some laughs and some affirmation into rainy days. Check out Moana on the big screen first though – with visuals like this, it’s worth it.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk