Dirs: John Musker, Ron Clements, Don Hall & Chris Williams
Familiar elements of other Disney animations by Clements and Musker are revisited in this beautiful tale that manages to go somewhere completely different, while creating a new ‘classic’.
Island chief’s daughter Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) feels drawn to explore what lies beyond the reef, constantly told that her people don’t go that far out into the ocean but when their home is threatened she finally ventures in search of legendary hero Maui (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) to fix things.
I have a friend (yes, honestly) who told me a few years ago that she has a relative ‘who works at Disney’. Now, ‘works at Disney’ could mean many things, he could work in the canteen making burgers, maintain the computers, even clean the toilets, any of hundreds of important jobs that don’t have any direct role making the actual films. However, it turns out that my friend’s 7th cousin once removed (though I don’t know what it was that was once removed) is none other than director John Musker!
So I went with my friend Annette, who very rarely goes to the cinema (in fact the last film she saw there was 1997’s ‘Hercules’), to see the latest Disney animated classic. It takes a formula that has long worked for the house of mouse, bringing together characters from different worlds, one magical the other more rooted in reality, throwing in some very catchy songs and creating a sense of adventure to enthrall the audience.
In itself the story is nothing hugely new, in fact that’s essentially the point, it’s a classic quest in most respects. Many elements are reminiscent of Musker & Clements’ previous films and of course the wider Disney back catalogue. Whereas Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid’ was desperate to get out of the sea and see what’s on the land against her father’s wishes, Moana yearns to take to the sea and explore what’s beyond the reef. The film itself at times makes reference to ‘The Little Mermaid’ especially in the brief post-credits scene. There’s also the clear similarity with heroes Hercules and Maui, again making use of mythology to set a solid framework, here built upon with the addition of character Moana who is ‘not a princess’ but has many similar attributes. Putting the fantasy elements drawn from Polynesian mythology into a story that takes the form of a quest is a clever move, with a clearly established goal and an interesting journey to get there, it’s fundamentally simple and proven to work.
Journeying allows opportunity to show off the beautiful animation. Lots of the film takes place on the sea and the animated water is stunning. I saw it in 3D and it looked amazing, the bright and vivid colours helped to counteract the light loss from the 3D which meant it didn’t annoy me as it often does, though I’m sure the film will be just as stunning if not more in 2D. At times the film incorporates different styles of animation, such as Maui’s hand-drawn tattoos and at one point when he breaks into song the film draws on cultural art that ties the film into the setting even more, though I felt like it wasn’t ever forced or overdone.
Water is not only a beautifully animated location but also given sentience and cleverly used as a character, one with a sense of humour. Pet pig Pua features in posters and in the early part of the film felt like he would be an ongoing animal sidekick, sadly gets a little underused. He’s so cute I think more could have been done, saying that there’s no reason he and HeiHei the chicken couldn’t go on to have animated short adventures, that’s something I’d love to see.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the key songwriters and also features on the soundtrack. With ‘Hamilton’ being so well heard of internationally his involvement has been highlighted a lot in reviews and articles, however it’s not a solo effort as some articles may make it seem it was a collaboration also with Opetaia Foa’i and composer Mark Mancina, all together they have produced a very strong soundtrack and score that works incredibly well. ‘You’re Welcome’ is an example of how well the voices and songs work together to convey the character’s personalities, who knew Dwayne Johnson could sing that well? My personal favourite and really the key song of the film is ‘How Far I’ll Go’ which is right up there with some of the best Disney songs.
Characters voices will vary from language to language but in the English version there’s some perfect casting of voice actors. Firstly there’s extensive use of Polynesian actors, from lead Auli’i Cravalho who is excellent both in her speaking and singing voice, to the fantastic Jermaine Clement (I’m a huge Flight of the Conchords fan) as a treasure-loving crab, whose song incidentally sounds a little like something he would have written though he didn’t. Though born in California, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson grew up in both Hawaii and New Zealand and is of Samoan heritage, his voice oozes bravado and the muscular physique of Maui is not dissimilar to his own, making him a really perfect choice for the role.
Taika Waititi (director of ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok’) receives prominent thanks in the end credits, as apparently he wrote the first draft of the screenplay. It’s nice to see Waititi alongside screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell (who are Hawaiian) on a long list of collaborators of Polynesian heritage, adding a little more to the credibility of the cultural appropriation in the film and counteracting some of the criticism that has come. It’s clear that the mythology and culture was well researched and handled with a great deal of care and respect, so the criticisms really won’t cast a lasting shadow over the film they will be forgotten.
After we had sat quietly enjoying the film, as the credits began I looked at my friend beside me, her face reflecting more than just the enjoyment, there was pride as the directors names came up. She thoroughly enjoyed the film (incidentally her first time with 3D which hadn’t bothered her at all), amazed her relation had made something so beautiful. She was stunned by the progresses in animation, the leaps all the more notable as she isn’t a regular viewer of animated films, it was for her and I, a resounding success.
While some of Musker and Clements’ films have not been held as fondly as others in the animated classics collection, I am confident this will be regarded well among that prestigious group alongside such films as ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Cinderella’. This enigmatic character while definitely “not a princess” has the heart (and voice) of a Disney heroine and all the strength and passion you could ask of a role model for children, in a film that’s full of beauty and excitement.
‘Moana’ was nominated for 2 Golden Globes including ‘Best Animated Film’ and is currently nominated for many other awards such as 6 Annie Awards including ‘Best Film’, the BAFTA for ‘Best Animated Film’ and 2 Academy Awards for ‘Best Animated film’ and ‘Original Song’. It has fierce competition, even from other Disney offerings, yet I think it stands a good chance of picking up an award or two in surprise victories.