So I've had a lot of free time and I've also been struggling with the usual stresses that come with boxing week. I've had to get out a lot more often and it just so happens that the theater nearby gives me something to do. Earlier this week, I re-watched Rogue One (great film) but I needed to see something else. One film that was playing was Moana, a Disney animated film I didn't know much about beyond a vague idea of the premise. I remembered seeing trailers for it, including the somewhat misleading original teaser that made it look like the titular character was a sidekick to Maui.
It looked like it would be fun and enjoyable so I decided to give it a watch. Some of my family tried to talk me out of it, dismissing it as a "Princess Film" and acting like it being a Disney animated film automatically made it worthless. It's a good thing I didn't take that advice, because it turns out that Moana really is something special. It's hardly a typical Disney animated film, and definitely not one about princesses or true love (at least not in the traditional sense). It is admittedly weird and yes, it is a musical, but it is also a touching nautical odyssey with a balance of emotion and humor.
A long time ago, the goddess Te Fiti was responsible for creating the world until one day when her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), resulting in a spread of darkness across the world. Fast forward a few thousand generations later and these events are only remembered as legends. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), the next in line to be Chief of a village on the island of Motunui, finds herself intrigued by the ocean but her father (Temuera Morrison) is convinced that nobody should ever leave. Over the years, Moana grows up to become a prominent figure in her community but still retains a sense of adventure.
Now as a teenager, Moana finds her greatest mentor is her grandmother (Rachel House), who presents her with the long-lost heart of Te Fiti. When Moana discovers that she is the chosen one destined to restore order, she discovers the secret history of her culture and embarks on an epic nautical odyssey as she secretly takes a boat and leaves the island for the first time. Now with only a washed-up (and extremely reluctant) Maui, a cross-eyed chicken, and the ocean itself for company, she must face a series of dangerous challenges which will test her both physically and mentally.
So contrary to what the initial teaser claimed, the film really is about Moana herself and how she develops her strength as a character. In fact, amazingly enough, there isn't even a romantic sub-plot or anything. Maui himself is basically the comic relief for much of the film, and his relationship with Moana is at best one between close friends. That's not to say it isn't an effective one, just not a conventional relationship. There's no real sexual tension between them (probably for the better; there is kind of an age gap) and if anything Moana has to show a lot of support towards Maui.
I loved the character of Moana, which is good because she has to carry most of the film by herself. She is a really strong and independent character, and never felt like she was any kind of damsel. She gets into trouble a few times, but almost every time rescues herself rather than waiting for the bumbling Maui. In fact, a lot of the time whenever things do go wrong, it's Moana who figures out the solution and in some cases has to save her demigod companion. Maui never seems particularly dominant, and at most he and Moana are working as a team. If anything, Moana's most interesting relationship is not with any of the supporting cast at all.
One odd detail in Moana's narrative is the choice to make the sea itself an active character. It never speaks, but it is shown to have an enigmatic personality and a deep-rooted connection to Moana. This emerges in different forms, from brief moments of comic relief (Maui's repeated efforts to kick Moana off the boat, only for her to be thrown back on) to moments of drama. This is admittedly an odd choice for the narrative, but it works. Not only is it used effectively for humor, but it also constructs what may be the most meaningful relationship Moana has. The other detail of note is her brief but touching relationship to her grandmother, who serves as a mentor figure in a role that would normally be filled by a male character.
That said, there is still a great supporting cast for the few other characters that appear in the film. Dwayne Johnson is a lot of fun as the bumbling Maui, but even the other characters who appear are well acted. We get an emotional relationship between Moana and her grandmother, but also her parents are well-voice acted. The only other actor who really gets any major dialogue is Jemaine Clement, who plays a giant treasure-hunting crab who lives under the ocean (literally). Clement is not in the movie very long, but his bizarre action sequence allows for plenty of fun and good jokes, as well as solid moments for both Maui and Moana.
Looking past the film's acting, it is also beautifully animated. The filmmakers went to great lengths to bring each of the different environments Moana visits to life and they delivered. Even the parts where she's in open water have a way of seeming genuine. Moana is a really straight forward but surprisingly well-made story with a good balance of humor and drama. It's a weird fantasy adventure inspired loosely by Polynesian mythology but also a detailed character study which presents a strong female lead. I'll admit, I was hoping it would be fun but I didn't realize just how good it would actually be.