Moana review: A kickass Disney princess is just what 2016 needed
Meet Moana. Essentially another princess/daughter of a Pacific island chieftain handed to us by Disney. But unlike most past avatars, Moana (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho) is an empowering figure, not a damsel in distress needing to be rescued. She takes the reins of her story firmly in her own hands.
We saw that with the leads in Tangled and Frozen too, but more than those two movies, Moana is grounded in positive messages, straight from the old 'finding who you are' storyline to the very fact that she isn't waif thin with a non-existent waist. Instead, she's a strong and proportionate adolescent woman - a far cry from the Barbie image we've been fed for years.
Better yet, it's the first Disney movie where the female lead hasn't got a love interest. Nada. You could scan the horizon, but you won't spot anything that resembles one.
That it also uses Polynesian myths and stories to drive the narrative in a way that isn't demeaning and derogatory, but heroic and celebratory, is a step in the right direction as well. Despite their contributions to history and geography, the Polynesians are a people who don't usually get those kind of stories told about them on this grand a scale.
All this is groundbreaking in many ways, but what's not is the story itself. The simplicity of the plot is a definite step back from the narrative complexity of Zootopia and Pixar's Inside Out.
Stop me if you've heard this one: the lead character is a headstrong, young woman of royal lineage from a highly traditional society, who dreams of following her heart. She teams up with a wacky animal sidekick and a scene-stealing demigod, and embarks on a disaster-averting mission that turns into a journey of self-discovery, which eventually leads to across-the-board reconciliation.
Definitely seen that one, right?
But it's still elevated by the fact that directors Ron Clements and Don Hall, who previously gave us The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, set up many nods to past Disney movies, from Aladdin itself to Lion King, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast and even Finding Dory.
So even though it is formulaic, thanks to the stunning CGI visuals and songs co-authored by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Samoan musician Opetaia Foa'i, the musical adventure is an absolute delight to watch from beginning to end.
The story opens with Moana learning of how the demigod Maui (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) fell from grace when he stole a powerful relic, putting a curse of sorts on his people and their islands.
Moana grows up 1,000 years later, feeling a pull from the ocean, but her father (Temuera Morrison) keeps reminding her of her duty to her people, so she ploddingly accepts her fate to stay on the island and lead.
But a darkness is spreading and Moana, beckoned and blessed by the ocean, decides to venture out to look for Maui to fix things once and for all.
The Rock's role as the trickster Maui is charming and arrogant in all the right ways. He's got tattoos that tell a story, which allows the directors to really push some boundaries in cross animation styles. And as expected, the former wrestler's signature pectoral move is included.
The songs itself are solid and upbeat, but not necessarily show-stopping, barring a musical number called 'Shiny' performed by Flight of the Conchords singer Jemaine Clement as a monster crab. It's David Bowie-esque, possibly a tribute to the late artist.
The animation is possibly the best Disney has ever offered. The water, which has a life and personality of its own, is beautifully animated - you can see rivulets glisten on skin while running down realistically.
Should you watch this? Yes. The matter-of-fact way that Moana is treated is heartening. No one doubts her because of her gender; only sometimes because of her youth.
She's the princess Disney needed. Because it's 2016.
P.S.: The Pixar short - Inner Workings - is worth the price of admission alone. As always.