Disney’s Moana is a bit of a paradox. It is a classic Disney tale while also being quite unlike anything they have ever done before. In short, it’s amazing.
At its heart Moana is your typical ‘chosen one on the quest to save their village’ story. It’s just that it’s told exceptionally well. Plus all the other little bits added in make Moana damn near perfect.
The other little bits being Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) isn’t Princess, she’s next in line to become the island chief. She just is. She doesn’t have to marry anybody or pass any tests. It’s just a fact. The next island chief will be Moana.
The reason she can’t sail beyond the reefs is that no one is allowed beyond the reefs. Moana’s father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) attempted to do so when he was young and lost a good friend in the process. As a result, the island is banned from going past the boundaries.
So when the crops start to die, and the fish start to vanish, the thought of just moving is heresy. Even more so since it comes from the Chief-to-be, Moana. Ever since she was a child, she’s been ensorcelled by the Ocean. As we see in the beginning, the Ocean is just as infatuated with her as she is with it.
There’s also no love interest for Moana. When she finally does meet Maui (Dwayne Johnson) it’s not played as a meet cute, so much as a mortal meeting a demigod; because she is and he is. Not to mention the movie takes almost a full hour before Moana even meets Maui.
You never feel it either. There’s never a lull or a lag in the story. Moana’s early life, her present dilemma between respecting her father wishes and accepting her responsibility balanced with her Grandmother’s (Rachel House) advice and the Ocean’s pull is all handled as if it matters. Because it does.
Even as Moana and Maui go on their quest together, the story never becomes Maui’s. It stays Moana’s. Whether it’s the Mad Max inspired oceanic duel with the Kakamora or when she’s in the realm of the monsters fighting Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement). It’s all about her.
Maui’s personal journey is a subplot. So much so when he bails at a crucial moment in the final battle the movie stays with Moana. It doesn’t follow him so we can see him debate to return, even though we know he most surely will. It’s a quest movie after all, and he’s a demigod. But Moana is our hero.
All of this alone would make Moana delightful and moving. Throw in the fact that she’s a young indigenous woman and it elevates it still. The beauty of all of this is, it doesn’t matter that Moana is a woman. She is just allowed to be the hero; and THAT makes this movie, along with everything else, a masterpiece.
I haven’t even mentioned how the music, most of it by Lin-Manuel Miranda, never disrupts the flow of the story. Sure there are some catchy songs here and there, but for the most part, the music exists to further the story. The songs come organically without forcing the movie to a stop.
The visuals are amazing, of course. Not because of the detail but the range of visuals. Ron Clements and John Musker allow the animators full and wild freedom to try different styles and textures. They do all of this, and it never causes the movie to jump the rails. There’s never any ego moments where the movie pauses and shows off. All is in service of the story.
But again, Moana is a woman and it doesn’t matter. Except it does. For so many obvious and not obvious reasons. She is allowed full emotional complexity. Right down to the moment after Maui leaves and she has the moment of doubt and toys with quitting. Right down to her realization of what actually happened and how tragic it all is.
Moana is a movie for little brown girls. It’s a movie for little girls. Rooted in its specificity and amalgamation of South Polynesian cultures and folklore, Disney has done what it has always tried to do. It’s made a movie for everyone.