Review – Moana (2016)

Directors: Ron Clements & John Musker

Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk


With Ron Clements and John Musker, directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, at the helm Disney is back to doing what it does best, the princess movie. But with Moana, they manage to bring a fresh cultural twist to this old standard.

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) loves her island paradise home of Motonui, but since she was very young she has felt called by the ocean. Her father (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her village, has forbidden people from venturing beyond the shallow waters of the reef, but when Motonui is faced with an ecological catastrophe she is compelled to set sail to save her people. Folklore told of the time the trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a precious green stone known as the Heart of Te Fiti from the goddess who gave life to the islands. Encouraged by her grandmother (Rachel House), Moana sets out to find Maui and convince him to return the Heart of Te Fiti and restore order.

Disney doesn’t have a proud track record of ethnic diversity in its storytelling, so Moana has a real freshness to it, plus a cultural sensitivity which shows how far the studio has come since, say, Aladdin, which while being a great movie is a somewhat problematic representation of Middle Eastern cultures. For Moana the filmmakers went to great lengths to get the cultural aspect right, embarking on research trips throughout the Pacific Islands, and it shows. There is a genuine embracing of the Polynesian culture that infuses not only the storytelling and music but becomes a prominent design feature of the film. Maui’s body is covered in living tribal tattoos including a mimi-Maui who serves as his conscience, while also allowing Moana to see behind his bravado. Maui’s big musical number, “You’re Welcome,” (that’s right, The Rock sings) shows the 3D characters interacting with traditional 2D Polynesian illustrations to great effect. This cultural specificity is also reflected in the casting. With the exception of Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk who plays Moana’s pet chicken Heihei, every member of the voice cast is of Polynesian heritage. This blend of predominantly Hawaiian and New Zealand accents contributes, along with the music, to Moana’s unique sound.

The music, from a collaboration between Lin-Manuel Miranda (who Disney had the foresight to sign up before his musical Hamilton became a smash hit) and Disney regular Mark Mancina, with Opetaia Foa’i helping give it its South Pacific flavour, is undoubtedly one of Moana’s great strengths. There is nice variety, with a combination of traditional Disney ballads like the Oscar nominated “How Far I’ll Go,” Polynesian infused songs like “We Know the Way,” and humorous character pieces like “You’re Welcome,” and the Bowie-esque “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Concord’s Jermaine Clement as the giant, glitter encrusted crab Tamatoa.

Unfortunately the freshness of the film’s look and sound does not extend to its narrative. Moana has a disappointingly simple plot. It is a quest story, meant to be a grand odyssey, but the progress feels so straight forward you don’t feel the weight of the journey. She needs to find Maui. So she does. Before he can help they need to recover his magic fishhook. So they do. There is progression, but each step of the journey feels relatively easily achieved. After the more sophisticated and adventurous narratives of recent Disney films like Zootopia, Frozen and Big Hero 6, the storytelling in Moana does feel underwhelming by comparison.

Once she sets off on her quest, much of the film is a two-hander between Moana and Maui – Heihei is also along for the journey but is too stupid to offer any genuine companionship. The relationship between the two takes on an interesting dynamic as Maui serves as both co-protagonist and primary obstacle to Moana’s mission. Thankfully there is no suggestion of a romantic interest between the two. With her being sixteen and him being many thousands of years old, that age gap would have been difficult to manage. Rather, both characters are required to bring something out of the other. Moana must coax self-awareness out of the vain demigod, while Maui must show Moana that rather than needing saving perhaps she can be her own hero.

Moana possesses a sound message about knowing who you are and listening to your heart, and is a feast for the eyes and ears, but its slightly underwhelming narrative means that it will not take its place amongst the upper echelon of Disney’s animated musicals.

Moana is preceded by a sweet animated short, Inner Workings, which, through a similar concept to Inside Out, explores the a day in the life of a depressed office worker by following the reactions of his anthropomorphised internal organs.

Rating: ★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Moana? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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