One of the more positive side effects of the increasing diversity of Disney’s animated films in recent years is the studio’s willingness to incorporate culturally specific art into the aesthetics of their films. John Musker and Ron Clements’s Moana epitomizes this creative boon, as the film’s Polynesian setting and characters are matched by art direction that draws heavily from Samoan statues, tattoos, and architecture. This carries over to the character designs, which favor large, tiki-like heads with highly expressive faces.
The film gets its exposition out of the way early, framing millennia of background mythology and history to explain the diaspora of Polynesians across the Pacific islands and a blight that destroys all vegetation as the result of foul play by a mischievous demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson). This opening is rather sluggish, and it’s thankfully followed in short order by the more nuanced, emotionally driven take on the evolution of Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of an island chieftain (Temuera Morrison). The girl’s love of and supernatural affinity for the ocean are sternly repressed by her father, who fears the dangers of open water, and a montage set to song establishes a brief lifetime defined by a frustrating denial of desire.
Compared to your average Disney princesses, Moana is neither selfishly rebellious nor simplistically innocent. Her longing for the sea isn’t just a flight of fancy, but an innate cultural pull that superstitious tradition has thinly covered. When the mysterious plague begins affecting her island’s crops, she sets off across the ocean to find Maui and convince him to fix things by returning the heart he stole from her people’s nurturing creator goddess.
Moana’s seafaring voyage provides a challenge for the animators. As animation grows ever more intricate and detailed with ever-improving technology, a film in which the vast majority of scenes take place against expanses of blue water that stretch into the horizon reduces the amount of freely available eye candy. As such, it falls to character expression and body language to provide most of the visual dynamism, and Moana’s determination and inexperience play out in her energetic but uncertain movements around her canoe, her eagerness regularly colliding with her lack of sailing knowledge. Later, when Moana finds Maui and he reluctantly joins her, his own surly condescension adds a contrast for her attitude, and his vast body provides neat diversions in the form of his semi-sentient tattoos, which dance and warp and even converse with him in judgmental gesticulations.
Further breaking up the monotony of oceanic travel is the film’s episodic structure, which is dependent on a number of fetch-quest side plots. The best of these involves a journey to retrieve Maui’s magic fishhook, which can help him transform into any animal, in the possession of a gigantic, treasure-hoarding crab played by Flight of the Conchords’s Jemaine Clement. In one of the film’s best musical numbers, Clement breaks out his finest David Bowie impression to belt a glammed-up ode to the crab’s gold-encrusted shell. Some of the monsters encountered are genuinely unsettling, whether a throwaway creature with too many arms and a blank mask for a face or a living lava giant that guards the island where the Earth goddess resides.
Certain aspects of the film reveal the limitations of the Disney formula. One can easily map out the narrative beats between Moana and Maui from the moment they meet, including the demigod’s inevitable moment of self-doubt and the girl’s inspirational speech to motivate him. When Moana sets sail, she learns that she inadvertently brought with her Hei Hei, an outrageously stupid chicken that marks a new extreme in Disney’s penchant for saddling its heroes with a goofy and all but useless animal pal. The film even lampshades its clichés through Maui, who calls out obligatory moments of personal conflict and resolution and links Moana to a long line of Disney heroines by saying, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
Moana is the latest iteration of a Disney princess, but she stands far apart from many of her predecessors. Instead of chasing after a man or even finding love by accident, Moana never loses sight of her key goals of saving her people, both literally and culturally. Pixar’s Brave attempted something similar, but its focus remained too narrowly on self-consciously bucking fairy-tale norms that this film avoids without a second thought, and its macro view of Moana’s responsibilities to others makes her more than a cipher.
The soundtrack, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’I, and Mark Mancina, strengthens this aspect of the film. Lyrically, the songs largely consist of the usual anthems about self-actualization, but they vibrantly draw from Samoan and Maori musical history, incorporating tribal dance rhythms into the orchestration. This is the finest collection of songs for a Disney film since Howard Ashman’s run with the studio, and it’s fitting that they should score the most elegant animated feature that the company has released in years.