Audiences are becoming increasingly insistent that diversity is no longer a novelty, but a necessity.
Cast your eye over the mouse house’s output over the past quarter of a century and you’ll see a gradual but inexorable shift. The Eurocentric aesthetics and cultural influences of the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and even Beauty and the Beast (1991) are all well and good, but as new information and communications technology makes the world that little bit smaller every day one can hardly blame the viewing public for demanding to see greater cultural eclecticism in the studio’s palate.
Whether the studio has genuine diversity on its agenda is arguable, of course. For all its exotic trappings, The Lion King (1994) is basically Hamlet with animals. Mulan (1998) certainly has the credentials in terms of the mythology of its source material, but some of its characters border on crass racial stereotype. And did I mention that there’s not a single non-Caucasian actor in the principal cast of Aladdin (1993)?
That said, the woefully underappreciated The Princess and the Frog (2009) is jubilant in its celebration of the creole and African American culture that’s endemic in every frame and every line of dialogue.
The very same could be said for the treatment of Polynesian culture in Moana.
Firstly, the film boasts a phenomenal cast of Polynesian actors, from Dwayne Johnson (Samoan), to Nicole Sherzinger (Hawaiian) to kiwis like Jermaine Clement and that ubiquitous Maori actor, Jake The Muss himself, Temuera Morrison. None, however, shines brighter than Auli’i Cravalho as Moana herself. For all the film’s wonder and spectacle (and there’s plenty) its greatest accomplishment is getting us to fall completely in love with Moana herself. Credit where its due, of course, to the wit of the script and to the incredible animators and modellers who brought the character to life but as any animator will tell you, it all starts with the actor’s performance! Still just a teenager, Cravalho brings the character incredible depth and emotional verisimilitude as well as a gift for comic delivery. Her every word elevates the character and material but when she sings… she soars!
While I’ve always respected Dwayne Johnson I can’t honestly say I’ve ever been a fan of anything he’s done but it’s by no means damning with faint praise when I say that his turn as the narcissistic demigod Maui is the best of his career. Since the star has been quite candid about the specific challenges of the role and the medium of voice acting I hope that critics and audiences will gain a newfound appreciation to how much gravitas and stone-cold charisma the actor can lend to a character even without the aid of his imposing physique.
Moana is steeped in Polynesian legend and culture. While many may mistake the setting for Hawaii (I certainly did), the bulk of the action takes place in Motunui, a settlement of New Zealand’s North Island and in the film’s handling of Maui makes specific references to Maori legend viewed, of course, through the expertly crafted lens of Disney. While Johsnson’s Maui may draw parallels with Disney’s other well-meaning oaf Hercules (1997), he shares more in common with Prometheus, having stolen the power of the Gods with the intention of gifting it to mankind though his hubris resulted in terrible consequences for all, giving rise to a vengeful demon of lava and ash who decimates all life in her path.
The cultural heritage provides opportunities for some breathtaking visuals as well as an opportunity to show a kind of mythology rarely explored on screen.
It is without exaggeration that I say that Moana may well be Disney’s most visually spectacular film yet, and given its pedigree that really is saying a lot!
The island setting is beautifully realised and populated with visually interesting characters and the obligatory adorable creatures, including faithful pig Pua and the spectacularly unintelligent chicken Heihei. It’s when the film commits fully to the realm of fantasy, however, that it shines the brightest (literally in many cases).
Throughout Moana is shown to have an affinity with the ocean (hey, her name does translate as ‘ocean’ in most Polynesian languages), to the point where she can manipulate the water itself.
This fairly simple conceit leads to some utterly stunning visuals that make me that much more impatient to see Amber Heard’s Mera use the same skill in the Aquaman movie (2018). The ocean is one of the film’s most compelling characters; it calls to her constantly, even as she happily resigns herself to never explore the dangers beyond her shores and reign peacefully over her village and when it asserts itself as a physical force, the effects are never less than spectacular.
Similarly, Maui’s tattoos have a life of their own, animating to tell the story of the demigod’s past adventures with a stylised rendering of Maui himself acting as an ink-etched Jiminy Cricket. It’s an expert synergy of cultural reference and fun visuals.
There’s also a whole realm of monsters to be explored, most notably the vain and cruel Tamatoa, played to perfection by the wonderful Jermaine Clement. Not only does Tamatoa present one of the film’s coolest visuals but one of its best songs too.
The likes of Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013) raised the bar for music in Disney films but Moana is in a league of its own. While Moana’s stirring theme “How Far I’ll Go” probably won’t be as ubiquitous as “Let it Go” but it’s every bit as beautiful and triumphant.
While Moana is a great example of a simple story well told, it presents something fresh, beautiful and spectacular in its visuals and world building. With a soundtrack that’s as clever as it is catchy and a parade of wonderful characters brought to life by brilliant performances (not to mention a sprinkling of witty Disney Easter Eggs), Moana is deserving of its every accolade.