I remember watching the trailer for this in the cinemas and coming away with the impression that this was fairly generic Disney fare transposed on top of Polynesian mythology. It didn’t help that Dwayne Johnson appeared to be playing a character identical to his real-life persona and I find him annoying. But then months after its release, I noticed a stream of posts on Broken Forum praising it. As it turned out, Johnson does indeed sort of play himself, but the film is smart enough to mock his persona, which makes all the difference.
Moana is the daughter of the chief of the island of Motunui. She dreams of sailing on the ocean but is forbidden from doing so by her father. However beyond the paradise that is their island life is slowly dying out and legend has it that this is due to the shapeshifting demigod Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, the mother of all life, a thousand years ago. Eventually the calamity reaches their island and Moana, realizing that she has been chosen by the ocean itself, sets out with the heart to seek out Maui and have him return it to Te Fiti. Guided by the stars, she does indeed find Maui who has been trapped on an island after being separated from his magical hook. Unfortunately she also realizes that Maui, while undeniably powerful and skilled, is also egoistical, selfish and terrified of confronting Te Kā, the lava demon who defeated him so long ago. It is up to Moana to cajole and browbeat him into doing his duty to save the world.
This dynamic between the two characters is exactly what makes this film so much fun, especially once you realize that Maui is meant to be the archetypal dude bro. He may have superhuman strength and is a fantastically good sailor but he’s so full of himself, constantly flexing his muscles to show off the tattoos of his great deeds and expecting gratitude for everything he does that he comes across as an asshole. Having a young girl overflowing with moxie is a cliché but it’s so satisfying to watch her overcome her initial awe and tell him off. The fact that she’s supposed to be an ordinary human actually makes her crowning moments of awesome more impressive even while Maui is off doing more outlandish feats. Given recent events, it’s hard not to read this as a feminist confronting a Gamergate bro and winning him over, especially when Maui is played by someone like Dwayne Johnson. Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch, but I like to think that amidst the current debate over open vs. closed nations, this falls very much in the open category.
Moana also subverts the usual expectations in some clever ways. The inclusion of the traditional animal companion was a groan-worthy moment for me, until they pulled off a bait and switch. I like the updated paradigm in which stories of Disney princesses don’t require a romance to be complete. On the other hand, why do we even still need princesses? Maui notes, tongue-in-cheek, that a chief’s daughter destined to be the village’s next leader very much counts as a princess. I’d like them to move past having protagonists being hereditary leaders who are naturally the smartest, most beautiful and most capable. The film also has some awkward moments, such as when the Kakamora pirates appear out of nowhere to provide them with a fight scene. I did appreciate how the whole thing was a homage to Mad Max: Fury Road. This seems like a new trend of Disney referencing popular but darker works, after seeing the Breaking Bad spoof in Zootopia.
On the whole this film doesn’t match the heights that the best Disney productions can reach. No one will be humming the songs from this one and I doubt this character will stick around in the popular consciousness. Nevertheless this is an above average animated feature that draws on lesser known myths and makes for a commendable showcase for diversity. I’d recommend it as pleasant light entertainment.