While the animators at DreamWorks and Pixar were silently waging computer-generated war with one another for the better part of the past two decades – besetting ogres and “antz” against cowboys and spacemen – Disney quietly, but noticeably, began blending their classical storytelling tropes with more ambitious themes. Recent successes such as Frozen, Zootopia and Big Hero 6 have found the once-great animation giant on par, and possibly even surpassing, its more vaunted Pixar cousin.
Which brings us to the studio’s latest effort, Moana, which sounds on paper like another rehash of the established and well-worn “Disney Princess” narrative, but in practise is a progressive and rousing tale that becomes the crown jewel of the latest renaissance from the company.
Made with the involvement of veteran Disney co-directors and co-writers Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid), Moana takes the skeletal structure of a hero’s journey and turns it into a multilayered feast for the eyes, ears and heart that refuses to talk down to adults or children.
The titular protagonist, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, was born to be the chosen leader of her people on a Polynesian island. She doesn’t have to prove her worth to anyone, and she ascends to a leadership position with no sexist opposition. The conflict in her life comes from matters of conscience and circumstance. A restless and curious soul, she’d rather be a wayfinder than royalty. Her people were once explorers, but have grown complacent in their lives, fearful of leaving the island after shape-shifting, trickster demigod Maui (portrayed with cheeky aplomb by Dwayne Johnson) stole a mystical MacGuffin from the symbolic embodiment of Mother Nature and left the ocean an inhospitable, unnavigable place.
The obvious subtext of Moana is rich and pointedly relevant, but never overpowering. The stagnancy of Moana’s people has led to dying crops, a tax on natural resources and decrease in fish. While Moana wants to head out to find Maui and return the mystical stone to its rightful place, the fear of nearly every other tribal leader overrules her. Everyone except Moana and her grandmother feels perfectly content sitting around and wishfully thinking that everything will work out just fine without exploring new solutions. It’s a story rooted in respectfully specific cultural traditions and details, but one that doesn’t need to take place on an island to attain a sense of modern immediacy.
Once Moana becomes proactive and the film’s true adventure begins, kids will get a kick out of the visually stunning and inventive high-seas set pieces (including a Mad Max-inspired showdown in which our hero and Maui battle a ship crewed by anthropomorphized coconut pirates) and rousing, inspirational musical anthems co-penned by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Adults, on the other hand, will more enjoy the film’s subtle narrative touches as much as they’ll marvel over the photorealistic ocean.
There’s thankfully no love interest – a cliché of kid’s flicks so apparently tantalizing that no one, not even Pixar, will leave it alone – and the only sidekick for Moana and Maui is a mute, accident-prone chicken. Although it’s gorgeous and quite funny, emphasis isn’t placed on spectacle, gags, or manipulative story twists, but on character and depth of meaning. Moana’s story isn’t only about striving to be recognized as a leader, but about the power of trying and potentially failing instead of sitting idly by for the world to right itself.
The world needs more films aimed at children that go beyond saying that they can do anything they set their minds to. Moana is the rare empowerment fable that kids might actually feel emboldened by.
Moana opens Nov. 23 across CanadaReport Typo/Error
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