10 December 2016
Moana can't have been an easy film to make. Three years on and it has become all the more clear the kind of impact that Frozen really had - not only was it something of a cultural phenomenon, it was also a surprisingly subversive film that pretty much rebutted the very notion of the princess movie. Anything attempting to get away with a "one true love's kiss" is going to seem trite and old-fashioned after Frozen went about deconstructing many of the tropes most closely associated with these kind of films, and that puts Moana in a very odd position indeed. As a swansong to the genre at large, Frozen is hard to fault - but how on Earth does a princess movie follow up the film that killed the princess movie?
Moana's answer to that difficult question is a simple but effective one - move with the times. The cliches so expertly refuted by Frozen are instead ignored entirely by Moana, making it feel like just as much of an evolution of the princess movie as Frozen does, albeit in a quieter, less obvious way. Our main character is a princess in status only, and there isn't a romantic subplot or a damsel in distress to be found within throwing distance of the film - in fact, she may well be the single most capable female heroine Disney have ever created, a natural leader right from the start of the movie played perfectly by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho.
In a lot of ways Moana feels like a return to form for Walt Disney Animation Studios, really managing to recapture the magic of the Disney Renaissance era for the first time. By my reckoning, this is their first film to really explore another culture since Mulan, and Moana makes the most of it - I'm hardly an expert, but the legends and myths used by Moana feel authentic, and the plot - which sees Moana sailing across the sea in order to deliver demigod Māui to the goddess Te Fiti - is made all the more engaging, all the richer for it. Much like Kubo and the Two Strings, it feels as if there is an expansive history informing everything that happens in Moana, helping flesh out this world beyond what we see of it.
Not that what we do see of it is underwhelming - Moana is gorgeous, probably one of the best looking films of the year. There are subtleties to the facial expressions and movements of the characters in Moana that make them feel more real than ever, and the vivid colours and inventive visuals on display bring to mind films like Princess Mononoke, especially when combined with the themes that Moana is playing with and the spiritual nature of the story being told. Whether it be in the wonderful mix of animation styles that accompanies the song "You're Welcome" or the spectacularly imposing figure of antagonist Te Kā, Moana is a treat for the eyes throughout.
But the best thing about Moana comes in the form of big-headed demigod Māui, played by the one and only Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. He's a hugely entertaining character to spend time with and Johnson is perfect in the role, not only imbuing the character with his unique brand of charisma but also proving that he's a surprisingly good singer with "You're Welcome", his characters introductory song. It may not be as instantly "Oh shit, this is going to be huge" as Frozen's "Let It Go" was, but it's still one of the very best songs to come out of Disney in years, and Johnson is a large part of why it works as well as it does.
Realistically, Moana almost certainly won't be as popular as Frozen - I simply can't see it registering with that film's primary audience in the same way - but there is no doubt in my mind that it deserves to be. In successfully providing all the heart, energy and charm that you'd expect from a traditional Disney film without bringing nearly 80 years of baggage along for the ride, directors John Musker and Ron Clements have created one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year, one that really feels like something special even while you're watching it - and one that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.