MOANA (2016) Finds its Way Through the Disney Princess Formula

I feel that Moana is more of an important movie than it is a great one, and its importance gives it a lot of thematic heft the movie wouldn’t have we’re it not so, well, important. It’s not that Moana is a bad movie, far from it, but it’s a Disney movie in much the same way that Doctor Strange was a Marvel movie. You get exactly what you’re expecting. There’s an almost clinical control to how the movie makes you as an audience member feel beat-to-beat, scene-to-scene. And it’s fun. Really fun. Bring your kids, have a nice day at the movies together. There aren’t many people who I can imagine regretting seeing Moana, and there are likely a lot more people who will appreciate the spotlight it gives to much underrepresented native Polynesian cultures.

The story follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the chief of her tribe on the island of Motunui, who, despite being drawn to explore the ocean, has been forbidden from leaving her island. But when the island’s crops begin to die, and the fish stop biting, it’s up to Moana to restore her world by finding the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and convincing him to return a magical stone he stole millennia ago. It’s very The Hero’s Journey.

Along the way, Maui has to reclaim a magical fish-hook that gives him the ability to shape-shift, the two run are chased by some coconut-demon pirates in a scene straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road; and there are a number of songs.

While none of Moana’s songs come close to the maddening ear-worm-iness of Frozen’s “Let it Go” (thankfully), Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i deliver exactly the quality you’d expect from the writer of Hamilton and one of Oceania’s most decorated musicians. Probably the most crowd-pleasing number is “You’re Welcome,” Maui’s upbeat introductory song with a distinct Lin-Manuel rap verse dropped in the middle; but “We Know the Way” and “How Far I’ll Go” – both of which get reprises – carry the rousing and adventurous tone of Moana from beginning to end.

The pretty standard Disney plot and structure gets a lot deeper when you consider that Moana’s journey isn’t just one of self-discovery, but of cultural rebirth. While she goes out to find out who she is, upon finding Maui, she rediscovers who her entire people are, and the culture they’ve long since lost. Through meeting Maui, Moana is taught about her people’s mythology, and through the rest of the movie, Maui teaches her wayfinding, connecting her to the rich historical tradition of Polynesian exploration. Moana, both literally and figuratively, finds her way back home. And while Disney isn’t completely kosher here – they play around with and mix-up various myth from different Polynesian mythical tradition – that Moana respectfully gives the culture such a large stage to present itself to popular culture is commendable. And then there’s the fact that every speaking role is played by an actor of Polynesian background. It’s still a movie made by the largest media company in the world, directed and written largely by white men, but there’s a clear and sincere desire to introduce and celebrate a culture that isn’t their own.

And it should go without saying, but on a technical level, Moana is the gold standard. The animation is gorgeous, with incredibly lush vegetation, above and below the sea, which itself is as blue and beautiful as you could imagine. Thankfully, Disney has also allowed Moana’s characters to break their design molds. Moana herself isn’t the same spindle-thin princess from Frozen or Tangled, having more than a bit of muscle on her frame; and Maui is more round than inverted-pyramid, with more of a stout strength.

Considering it’s her first acting credit, Auli’i Cravalho completely blows it out of the water as Moana, giving her an immediate strength, pep, and likability – a perfect Disney Princess, really. And you can’t not like Dwayne “The People’s Champion” Johnson.

Moana probably won’t be the cultural juggernaut Frozen was; which is kind of a shame, as it probably has a stronger first act. After over half a century of making these, Disney has gotten good at establishing character motivation, plot, conflict, tension, and world-building in ways that so many other studios and filmmakers have yet to even come close to. It also helps that over half a century of these films makes seeing one of them like snuggling into a familiar quilt.

Moana is further proof that Disney is unnervingly great at making movies that anybody can enjoy, and is also an example of a corporate superpower using its influence to expose people to a criminally underrepresented culture in a respectful and engaging way.