Starring (Voices): Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Alan Tudyk
Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements
Running Time: 113 mins
Synopsis: Adventurous teenager Moana sets out on a journey in search of an ancient item that could save her people. Along the way she meets demigod Maui (Johnson) and together they embark on a perilous voyage across the ocean, battling beasts, the elements and, in Moana’s case, finding her identity. And for once there is no love interest!!
Before we start going through Disney’s latest slice of animation joy let’s just touch on the customary short that precedes Moana. Entitled Inner Workings, it is a wickedly clever look at the battle between a man’s head and his heart, told through the cartoon versions of his organs. If all that sounds a little unusual, it somehow works an absolute treat. Encapsulating big ideas with simple ease, coupled with some gentle laughs, it marks out Leo Matsuda as one of the next big promising Disney directors.
It is a great primer to the main event. Utilising a somehow largely overlooked cultural arena, that of the Hawaiian folk tale. Wonderful paeans to the environment and our place within it. Setting the scene with a telling of the tale concerning demigod Maui who steals a life giving jewel in order to pass on to Man so they may create great lands. In doing so Maui releases a great evil that will consume the world. A scary tale for the young schoolkids being regaled said story, save for one bright eyed cute as a button scamp. This is Moana. Daughter to the island’s big chief, she longs to explore the ocean, which in a beautifully rendered scene calls her to its shore, seducing the child with a glimpse of the wonder beneath the waves. Unfortunately as she grows her father (voiced with a warm grace by Temeura Morrison) urges her to remain on the island and take up the mantle of chief. It is a well sketched example of the battle between following your urges and staking your own place in this world or attempting to fit into our parents pre-conceived notions of our future.
This inner fight is wonderfully delivered via Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (he of immense Hamilton fame) joyful songs. Whether conveying the day to day routines of the islands inhabitants or Moana crooning away that her heart yearns for more, they are lyrically witty and extremely catchy. Although there is no signature ‘Let it Go’ this time around, a few are certain to worm their way into your head. Soon enough events transpire to push Moana towards her destiny, losing her beloved Nan in a quietly poignant scene fires her up into finally taking action. Not least because her home seems to be under threat from a mysterious loss of food and vegetation, due, we learn, to Maui’s thievery of the life giving jewel, a not very subtle dig at mans destruction of his environment.
Headstrong, highly resourceful and in a continued progressive move for Disney not feeling the need to find a romantic interest (at no point is even a hint of male suitors mentioned) Moana is a true movie role model. Voiced with playfulness, emotion and soul by newbie, and Hawaiian native, Auli’i Cravalho, not to mention an outstanding singing voice. You must have a stone heart if you walk away from this not falling in love with her. She isn’t alone either, coming along for the ride is a lovably moronic chicken Hei-Hei (voiced oddly by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk, seeing as it’s just a series of clucks and cuckaws he does an admirable job) who steals some of the funniest moments from the movie’s real big hitter.
Joining the tale a third of the way in is Dwayne Johnson’s Maui. Cocksure, prone to singing songs that pat himself on the back and covered in constantly moving tattoos. In one of the films many clever visual gags these tats are a fully realised character themselves, repeatedly berating and frowning on Maui’s choices. Johnson is having a ball here, taking to his big musical number with confidence and humour. The interplay between the two leads is filled with bickering, frivolity and warmth. As they grow closer they both reveal something in each other they never expected and it’s written with a lot of heart. Maui’s back story is surprisingly dark and revealed in a scene of gentle delicateness.
The overall message is not quite as cutting and potent as in this years Zootopia but is unexpectedly deep in its portrayal of identity and purpose. But you don’t have to focus on the buried themes when the face of it all is so joyous. Possibly the finest looking animation I’ve ever seen, from the locations to the almost Abyss style fluidity of the Ocean (it manifests itself as a physical being in numerous scenes) to the pretty much lifelike character models. The level of invention is truly beguiling, with a Mad Max: Fury Road referencing mid film action scene being a particularly wonderful highlight. Not to mention a genuinely terrifying lava monster and Jermaine Clement having immense fun as a blinged out giant crab, there is enough here to justify the inevitable repeated re-watches thousands of parents will be subjected to.
It is hard to find fault in a film that is so set on leaving you with a ginormous smile on your face, but if I had to I’d say the film is a little on the long side. At close to the 2hr mark it feels a little stretched towards the start, and might lead to the extra young little ones becoming a little restless. But with enough catchy songs to fill a West End musical, showstoppers ‘We Know the Way’ and ‘How far I’ll Go’ will lodge in many an audience members head, finely sketched characters, playful humour and a rarely seen glimpse at a fascinating culture Moana places Disney firmly in another Golden Age. Your move Pixar!!
Verdict: Rich storytelling, two dynamic lead characters, terrific voice work, the best songs this side of Hamilton and breathtaking visuals all adds up to another Disney home run.