This charming animated family movie about a teenage Polynesian girl fighting to save her Pacific island’s future feels like business as usual for Disney in many ways. There’s a strong young female lead, catchy show tunes, lush landscapes and talking animals – a hermit crab with a fondness for trinkets almost steals the film and a dim chicken offers light relief.
But this tale from the directors of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ also feels like progress. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a young woman of colour set to take over from her father as the leader of an island community way back in the past (their beliefs are based around sea-travel and the island’s creation myth). When the plants on Moana’s island start to wither, the ocean chooses this 16-year-old to defy her father’s orders and set sail in search of a muscled demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson, self-mocking and funny), who can help her secure her people’s future. There’s not a prince or potential husband in sight; Moana’s future is entirely defined by her leadership and ability to fend off the mansplaining know-it-all Maui. As messages go, we’ll take them.
The story is a fairly simple quest tale as Moana takes to the open water in uneasy cahoots with macho Maui. His animated tattoos are among the film’s visual highlights, alongside the azure waters lapping the sand. There are some belters on the soundtrack, a few of them courtesy of man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the Broadway smash hit musical ‘Hamilton’. (Although most memorable is the more playful ‘Shiny’, the crab’s magpie-like ode to glittering things, sung by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.)
Late in the film, ‘Moana’ serves up a memorable foe, Te Ka, a smouldering, smoking giant made of lava. But the film’s strongest emotional pull comes in the form of Moana’s relationship with her elderly grandmother and, when she passes, the memory of her. Along with the film’s hippy-ish musings on the relationship between humans and the elements, it gives the film a moving, supernatural touch.