My first film in theaters, officially, was Disney’s “Pocahontas” as an impressionable young 3-year-old. But the first movie I really remember seeing was another animated gem from the Mouse House – “Hercules.” I distinctly remember the energy of the sneak preview crowd, the toe-tapping jams and the inspirational journey of a hero finding his place in a cosmic plan.
Nearly 20 years later, I found much of those same elements at work in the latest Disney animated feature, “Moana.” (It’s probably no coincidence that the two films share the same directing pair, Ron Clements and John Musker.) Both films thrive on theatricality, creativity and sincerity. Their stakes might tip towards the fate of entire civilizations, yet they never lose track of their human factor: a longing for self-actualization that unites us all.
This story of a young Hawaiian chieftess, Auli’i Cravalho’s titular character, seeking both her higher calling and salvation for the villagers that count on her shares a similar mythic dimension as “Hercules.” In a sign of evolution for the studio, though, they take the time to learn and care about the culture in which they place their narrative. From tattoos to topography and language to lore, Disney portrays Hawaii’s traditions respectfully and without exoticizing. There’s more to this Hawaii than one might gather from dinner theater at a resort, in other words.
“Moana” also fully embraces the musical numbers as a driving engine of the film, more than even 2013’s “Frozen” (and certainly more effectively). The songs – written as a collaboration between Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i and composer Mark Mancina – accomplish so much. Even when characters stop to state their wants or describe themselves, the plot keeps moving. The musical numbers provide opportunities for the animators to get a little wacky, depicting the world as a kaleidoscope of light and motion instead of a photorealistic mirror of our own. Not to mention, the songs cue us into a world of rich emotion ranging from goofy smiles to awed reverence.
All these singular features of “Moana” are wonderful and deserve lauding in their own right, but since this is Disney we are talking about, it does all come back to the overarching morality. These animated films are made for children, and no one should lose sight of that. While that “Mad Max: Fury Road” homage (which was NOT just a figure of my imagination) is fun, it’s somewhat beside the point. This movie serves as a vehicle for disseminating values to impressionable audiences.
It’s a real pleasure to see Clements, Musker, their team of writers and the entire Disney organization using the film to spread a different kind of upbeat message. Moana the character is a hero, and that’s a status she earns. To reach that distinction, however, she does not have to sacrifice what makes her human and relatable to us. She can defeat mythic creatures on her way to reversing a cosmic curse, yet she still finds herself locked in a battle of the sexes with the irreverent demigod Maui (hilariously brought to life by Dwayne Johnson). She can go great distances on her own self-reliance, but she still needs the help of her ancestors and the mysterious whims of “the sea.” (Here, that’s a personified force.) She gets demoralized, even to the point of quitting. She can save the world, but her darn hair will never stay out of her face!
Moreover, my lasting impression of “Moana” – and the one that will stick with me the longest – has nothing to do with her journey or her accomplishment. Rather, it’s what she does afterward. She discovers the potential lurking inside herself, sure. But with that knowledge, she chooses not to rest on her laurels or celebrate. Instead, Moana chooses to enable the potential in others. Hopefully this parting note, touching as it is timely, keeps recurring in the Disney canon. A- /