By Kirby Davis, Staff Writer
It’s impossible to watch a Disney movie with zero expectations. Mine, for “Moana,” were simply that it would be as good as 2013’s “Frozen.” But “Moana’s” mythological roots and the titular hero’s ancestral ties give the story a depth that the winter fantasy lacked.
Moana has joined Disney’s ranks as their 14th official princess. But the character (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), as she points out herself, isn’t exactly a “princess” — she’s the daughter of a Polynesian island chief. She’s expected to take over his responsibilities someday, but she’s more drawn to the ocean surrounding their island — somewhere she and the rest of the villagers are forbidden to venture into.
Moana’s grandmother and self-proclaimed local crazy lady lays out the story’s conflict: Their people believe that a goddess named Te Fiti gives life to their island and all those around it, but her heart was stolen long ago by troublemaking demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Maui lost the heart and disappeared, and if someone doesn’t track him down and force him to find and return Te Fiti’s heart, their lush paradise of an island will die.
The chosen one to complete this task is teenaged Moana who embarks on an epic, but perilous quest to save her people.
“Moana” has everything — gorgeous scenery, gut-wrenching family drama and a soundtrack featuring (and partially written by) “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. But its biggest strength is what the film is lacking: a romantic counterpart for our plucky young heroine.
2013’s “Frozen” was hailed as an icy triumph of modern feminism upon its release, an honor completely unwarranted by the princess flick. Maybe it was because one of its two female protagonists was single, or because prior to “Frozen,” Merida of 2012’s “Brave” was the only prince-less royal female in all of Disney’s illustrious history. But in “Frozen,” Anna and Elsa’s kingdom is saved less from Elsa’s out-of-control powers than Elsa is saved from her own inner demons, and the fact that Elsa rules Arendelle without a love interest is not overtly feminist.
“Moana” really is a triumph of modern feminism. Not because its heroine is a little feisty and rebellious, or because her primary concern isn’t finding her Prince Charming, but because she becomes her own hero as well as someone her village admires. She does so with some assistance from Maui (and the ocean itself, which serves as an equally spirited character), but it’s clear that Moana accomplishes what she does through her own hard work and unprecedented grit.
These female-driven heroic tales are rare in film, and we shouldn’t take this one for granted just because it’s animated. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who have helmed Disney classics such as “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” scrapped numerous drafts of the story in which male characters like her brothers or father overshadowed Moana, and the final product is deeply moving. This is a story that doesn’t waste time on unnecessary romance but instead focuses on following your gut and finding yourself.
“Moana” does employ some tried-and-true Disney flick formulas. Devastating familial tragedy, a precocious but reluctant young ruler and irritating animal sidekicks made to sell stuffed animals all assist in moving the story along. And while its dialogue often veers into cheesy territory, it’s still refreshingly self-aware. Much of what comes out of Maui’s mouth seems to be self-inflicting jabs, like his response to Moana’s assertion that she’s not a princess: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
16-year-old Hawaiian native and cinematic newcomer Cravalho breathes stubborn, spunky life into the film’s titular character, and Johnson is just caustic and cocky enough to be endearing, not polarizing, as Maui. Plus, Jemaine Clement pops up as an obstacle to Moana and Maui’s goal in the form of a monster crab and sings a villainous, delightfully “Flight of the Conchords”-esque song called “Shiny.”
The soundtrack plays a big part in this film’s success; it’s got everything from expositional, charming island numbers to existential power ballads. Paired with gorgeous scenery and incomparable attention to detail, this is a stunning, dynamic addition to Disney’s seemingly endless collection of animated musicals.
“Moana” is a surprisingly but powerfully feminist odyssey of self-discovery. I’m biased, being a lifelong Disney princess movie fan, but I can acknowledge when they’re good and when they’re not — and this one is great by any standards, not just Disney’s.