Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
1 hour, 43 minutes
The holiday season brings with it risky Oscar-bait ventures that studios hope will connect with audiences despite not having any alien laser-blasting destruction (“Arrival”) or the fact that the film in question is bone-crushingly sad (“Manchester by the Sea). This season also brings a certain number of sure bets, and the latest Disney princess adventure is certainly one of those.
“Moana,” a tale of ancient Polynesia, is as bright, colorful, and enjoyable as advertised. And though in tone and plot structure the film is entirely conventional, “Moana” is unique in that it tells a story from a perspective rarely attempted by Hollywood — one entirely from the view of native peoples.
The titular Moana is heir to the throne of an island paradise, one where the people live in harmony with the land — everyone has a role to fill, whether it by harvesting the coconuts, tending the fishing grounds, or caring for the children. This is a land of plenty, a land of peace, and, most importantly, a land of safety — mostly because no one is allowed to go beyond the reef. These people are sailors only in so far as they need to be to gather the fish from their lagoons.
Legend says that it has always been thus, but the typically headstrong Moana isn’t so sure. She has wanderlust — a drive that will come in handy when a mysterious blight begins to afflict her kingdom. Against the wishes of her father and taking a cue from her storytelling grandmother, Moana takes to the sea to find the legendary Maui, a Herculean demi-god who, using the power of his magical fishhook, must return a stolen talisman to heart of the mother goddess who he stole it from a thousand years before.
Needless to say, this won’t be as easy as it sounds.
On the one hand, there’s nothing about Moana that makes it any better than any of the top-tier Disney movies of the last decade or so. It’s a little better than “Bolt” or “Tangled,” though not quite as good as “Frozen.”
The music, mostly by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose biggest problem of late is figuring out what to do with all that “Hamilton” cash, is good though maybe not immediately memorable. What makes this movie special isn’t the movie so much as its insistence on telling a native story by native people. The biggest star in the film is Dwayne Johnson, who plays the heroically goofy Maui. Johnson is of Samoan descent, while Jermaine Clement, voicing one of the film’s villains, is Kiwi, from New Zealand, both islands making up part of the Polynesian Triangle. Though the film appears to take place in Hawaii, that is never specified and the film makes it clear that the story takes place prior to anything recognizable in the region.
Hawaii is the place most people will associate with the film, however, and filmmakers cast 14-year old Oahu-born Auli’i Cravalho in the lead role. Cravalho has a marvelous singing voice and, based on publicity, bears a remarkable resemblance to the cartoon princess she portrays.
Disney has had its ups and downs when it comes to casting, but with “Moana” has proved that you can have your cake and eat it too — a talented cast can be made up of people that are authentic to the story they are telling. That this is an animated story, destined to make a billion dollars no matter what, makes it somewhat easier for the studio to embrace diversity. Time will tell if Disney’s example will go on to influence more traditional Hollywood films where it still seems a better bet to apply bronzer to a Brit rather than simply employ a brown person.
“Moana” is a perfect family film for the holiday season. Where “Fantastic Beasts” disappointed, both by being disjointed and a little too scary, “Moana” will work for every member of the family. Sweet, funny, and full of adventure, this is one I can see owning and revisiting on a regular basis. I am also convinced that it will spawn sequels and cartoon series by the bushel, and why not? “Moana” isn’t mind-blowing, but the stories it has to tell are new and it’s not like there aren’t already plenty of white, European family flicks to go around (I’m looking at you, “Beauty and the Beast”).
“Moana” is rated PG for brief scary scenes.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.