Diversity and empowerment took a swift shot recently, which is why Disney’s latest animated offering, Moana, couldn’t have arrived at a better time. But it’s also more than just a welcome respite from the ugliness currently popping up with alarming frequency outside. It’s also an epic adventure, the type that girls and young women—and young people in general—everywhere are sure to imagine themselves embarking on.
Director’s Ron Clements and John Musker have been at the helm for some of Disney’s most enduring modern heroines—The Little Mermaid and Aladdin among them—and the titular Moana, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, represents a strong addition. Though she herself denies that she’s a princess.
Moana doesn’t dazzle with plot. Like many of her predecessors, the heroine is born into a life she doesn’t choose. Tapped to take over as chief of her small Polynesian island, Moana dreams of the sea—it draws her in and has its own special affinity for her from an early age. She, of course, is destined to venture beyond the reef that encircles the only world she’s ever known. In order to saver her people from an encroaching environmental catastrophe, she must defy her overbearing father and set out across the ocean to find the shape-shifting demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne“The Rock” Johnson) and right a wrong he committed generations ago.
She’s young, brash, and headstrong, and more than a little reckless; he’s an egotistical, self-concerned blowhard covered in moving tattoos. And the result is a mismatched high-seas road trip where they, among other things, venture to dangerous realms and tussle with a harrowing lava monster. It even comes complete with a goofy, mentally deranged animal sidekick, in this case Heihei, a simpleton chicken with a stunning lack of self-preservation instinct, voiced by Alan Tudyk. There’s also an adorable pig I wanted more of, but much to my chagrin, he disappears early on.
Despite the familiar arc, Moana distinguishes itself. Soaring musical numbers—Hamilton mastermind Lin Manuel Miranda contributed, and his presence is readily apparent—may lack the sheer hookiness of cuts like “Let it Go,” but if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself humming a few bars here and there throughout the next couple days. And the adventure it high, especially in one nod to Mad Max: Fury Road (likeminded viewers may also note key Waterworld similarities, but I may well be alone in that regard), only with the post-apocalyptic denizens replaced by adorable, though no less ferocious, coconut demon monsters. Yeah, I said coconut demon monsters.
Moana presents a dazzling visual feast—at times they voyage across naturalistic seascapes, others the world onscreen borders on Day-Glo psychedelia. But it’s the heart of Moana and Maui that propels the narrative. Like the plot, the character beats are obvious and expected—it’s easy to see when and where and how the emotional shifts will arrive—but Moana and Maui have such dynamic, engaging personalities it’s near impossible not to get caught up and swept out to sea along with them. I could watch Maui argue with his sassy tattoos all day. And even the ocean itself is a character, and I mean that in a very literal sense—it has a surprisingly sarcastic, smart-aleck personality all its own, not to mention an Abyss-like presence.
Moana is going to earn Disney so much alt right hate mail—they’re going to hate it so much. It’s all about brown people, women, spirituality, and compassion, with a strong environmental protection angle. And to that I (and Billy Idol) say more, more more. Antagonize the trolls. That bear needs to be poked, and young women and people of color need see themselves represented on screen. In the best of times, Moana would be a positive addition to popular media, but in the current sociopolitical climate, it feels downright vital and indispensable. [Grade: B+]