Disney's MOANA features Dwayne Johnson's voice and boasts beautiful animation, but something doesn't quite work as it should.
Spectacular beauty is on display throughout Moana, the 56th theatrical feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Even better, the film's protagonist is an admirable young woman who is determined to come of age on her own terms, without any adolescent romantic yearnings to distract from her journey to adulthood. Further, the world in which she lives is inhabited (almost) entirely by her fellow Polynesians, without any intrusions from explorers, Caucasian or otherwise, seeking to claim the territory as their own.
Yet it's difficult to shake the nagging feeling that, story-wise, Moana is altogether too calculated and machine-tooled to be entirely convincing. It also manages to reinforce stereotypes that should be crumbled.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker are veteran animators who began working at Disney in the 1970s. Their directorial debut, The Great Mouse Detective (1986), showed great promise and they delivered on that promise with The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). Their followups, Hercules (1997) and Treasure Planet (2002) were less successful creatively, and when their next planned project was rejected, they resigned from the company.
They returned to Disney after Pixar veterans John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull took oversight of the studio and asked them to work on The Princess and the Frog (2009). The musical comedy features gorgeous hand-drawn animation, and wonderfully quirky songs by Randy Newman, but its characters and story threads felt tattered and worn. Clements and Musker began developing Moana in 2011, eventually joining with collaborators to work out the details of the story and characters.
Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli'l Cravalho) is a teenage girl who lives on an island in the Pacific Ocean that is completely isolated from the outside world. She is the daughter of the extremely protective Chief Tui Waialiki (voiced by Temuera Morrison), who has forbidden his people from ever venturing into the sea. He has good reason -- a tragic experience in his younger years -- and the people have been content to obey his restriction.
Lately, though, the island and the sea have not been yielding their usual bounty of fruit and fishes, respectively, and the people have become anxious. Perhaps if they venture a bit further afield? As it happens, Moana has had an intense curiosity about the outside world ever since she was a child, when the sea itself appeared to beckon to her. Daring to disobey her father, she sneaks out on a epic voyage in search of a demigod known as Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), who is in possession of a stolen object that must be returned in order for Moana's people to be restored to favor and thus survive the crisis they are experiencing.
Like a classic road trip movie set at sea, Moana's journey is one of individual episodes. The overarching theme is that Moana needs to come of age so she can serve her people as ruler but, frankly, she's almost there already. She's not a selfish kid; she's kind and always thinks of the needs of others. Sure, her journey is driven in part by her own desire to explore; what's the matter with that?
Moana is such a friendly, rounded. 'wise beyond her years' character that the movie is in need of someone else to make a big change, and that someone is, unsurprisingly, her reluctant travel companion, Maui. He's a powerful demigod with cute, hand-drawn, 'living' tattoos on his body, but he's also incredibly selfish and lazy, always taking the easy way out of any possible problems. Despite his advanced age, he's the one who needs to grow up and take responsibility for his actions.
The movie thus inverts the expected paradigm; Moana is not a hero's journey, it's a sidekick's journey. The young girl Moana learns practical things -- how to sail -- while slowly becoming a supporting character to Maui, a male demigod who needs to learn Important Life Lessons. What may have been intended as an inversion of gender roles instead ends up reinforcing them.
A cheerful, happy movie, Moana tries hard to be fresh and modern, but it doesn't quite get there. It's still lovely and enchanting.
The film opens in theaters throughout North America on Wednesday, November 23.