Moana – new princess, new culture, same old charm

Moana is the latest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios and tells the story of Moana (played be Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of a Polynesian chief who travels across the ocean with the demigod Maui (played by Dwayne Johnson) to save the world from being drained of life and confront the evil lava demon Te Kā.

Set on the fictional island of Motunui, Moana explores the rich culture that spans the region of Polynesia. This provides a very refreshing setting, allowing for many story elements and visuals that would not have appeared had the film not been drawing influence from Polynesian culture. Maui, the deuteragonist of the film, is a figure who appears in stories and folklore across the region; he is heavily ingrained in the culture and his inclusion as a major character is a fantastic example of Disney’s respectful use of Polynesian culture. There are also many words and names taken from the Māori language originating from New Zealand and the story hinges around myths and legends about Polynesian deities.

The fantastic musical numbers that are par for the course in Disney princess films also take influence from Polynesia; the score had a very tribal sound to it and the Tokelauan language is incorporated into the lyrics of a few songs. While the music is great (I have been listening almost exclusively to the soundtrack since I left the cinema) many of the songs do feel a bit repetitive. Moana’s song that she sings towards the beginning of the film gets two reprises and so becomes three of the seven songs featured in the film. However, it is still a fantastic song and repeating it does provide a method of demonstrating Moana’s growth and character development throughout the story.

Moana is the latest in a long line of CG Disney animated films, a trend which will most likely continue for years to come. While there is nothing inherently wrong with CG as a method of creating animated movies, I have always found myself more drawn to traditional animation; there is something more beautiful to me about watching a film made of moving lines and shapes as opposed to computer generated objects being rendered in 3D space. However, I am happy to say that Moana breaks this trend and is, in my opinion, the most visually stunning CG film I’ve ever seen. The animation style prioritised beauty over realism which I think worked in the film’s favour; this allowed for movement to look fluid and cartoony, resulting in every frame feeling full of fun and life.

Disney princess films have been a long running tradition for Walt Disney Animation Studios, but Moana breaks a trend that is almost 79 years old by being the studio’s first completely original princess story. Rather than being based on a specific fairy tale, Moana is a brand new story that compiles different myths and legend from across Polynesia. As a result, the story feels as though it has many more elements to it than previous princess films; there is a sense that Polynesian culture is being celebrated by having many different figures and concepts from their tales appear throughout the film.

The plot revolves around trying to undo Maui’s mistake which was to steal the island goddess Te Fiti’s heart, which is said to grant life. Removing the heart caused life across the world to begin to die and summoned a demon named Te Kā who attacked Maui, stripping him of his magical fishhook and the Heart of Te Fiti and stranding him on an island. Moana is born 1000 years later and is bestowed the heart of Te Fiti by the ocean who has decided it wants her to save the world. This story has a fantastic sense of adventure because it entails Moana sailing across the ocean to complete various tasks on her journey to restoring the heart. It provides a sense of progression every time Moana accomplishes a feat, such as finding Maui, fighting off a swarm of evil coconuts or retrieving Maui’s fish hook. This film excellently demonstrates the strength of its protagonist and sucks the audience into her struggles.

I think it may be a little odd to talk about the film Moana without mentioning the titular character; she is fantastic. She is so likeable and quirky and you root for her throughout the film’s entire duration. Disney has received a lot of criticism in the past for their poor portrayals of women; their more modern princesses, however, have shown that Disney is committed to writing better female characters and nowhere is this more obvious than with Moana and her determination to save the world.

 

It’s also important not to undersell Maui; he is fantastic in his own right and is subject to a lot of character development as the story progresses. Maui’s story arc is the sort of thing you’ve seen countless times before; he goes from being self-centred and obnoxious to caring and heroic. However, he is extremely enjoyable to watch due to his tendency to humorously bully Moana and, although it’s nothing new, I always find it satisfying to see a character go from mean to being kind.

I came out of the theatre so happy with Moana that a couple of weeks later I saw it again. After putting up with Frozen being overplayed for what feels like the last eight thousand years, the Disney princess line-up of films felt as though it had left a bad taste in my mouth. Thankfully, Moana feels like a return to form; with beautiful animation, a wonderfully represented culture and a strong and three-dimensional new princess, Moana will undoubtedly be considered a Disney animated classic for years to come.

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