If you’ve seen any Walt Disney Animation Studios film in the past twenty or thirty years, then nothing that happens here will be of any surprise. The only thing this film has going for it is the fact that it is a counter-narrative to #OscarsSoWhite. It’s a hit film that will probably get nominated for Best Animated Feature that puts people of color on screen and even for an animated film lets people of color be the ones providing the voices as well. Specifically, the movie centers on a group of Polynesian people living in a village on an island in the Pacific Ocean.
One of the first, feature-length documentaries ever produced was Nanook of the North (1922). Robert J. Flaherty directed it. The movie followed a Native American, an Eskimo as it were, who lived along the northern Pacific in Canada. Flaherty made his next film Moana (1926), which was about a man named Moana who lived along the southern Pacific on the island of Samoa. Despite taking place in the early 20th century, Flaherty gave an impression that suggested life in the early to mid 19th century. Yet, in the nearly 100 years since, there hasn’t really been a movie that’s been set in Samoa or given us a look into that life or culture.
Arguably, the island depicted in this Disney movie is Samoa, even though it’s not specifically said that that’s where they are. It helps that one of the stars of this movie is himself half-Samoan. The main actress is herself Hawaiian, which if you set sail from Samoa to the United States, Hawaii is the major island one would encounter. The people and culture aren’t that dissimilar. Having actual Pacific Islanders voice the main roles adds a level of authenticity, which goes well to telling the story. The audience can then take in the culture being spoon fed to them with some level of ease whether it’s what the characters wear or how they perform certain customs like hula dancing.
Here, Moana isn’t a man. Moana is a teenage girl, possibly older. She’s being raised to one day be the chief of the village. She would rather leave, not only the village but also the island itself, and set sail on the ocean. Her father, however, doesn’t want her to go beyond the nearby reef. He puts his feet down about her staying where she is. He even sings a song about it.
This movie was written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the writers and directors of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). This dilemma for Moana is the exact same dilemma for Ariel in that 1989 film and the exact same dilemma for Jasmine in that 1992 film. Yet, the parallels aren’t just limited to the so-called Disney fairytales. This dilemma of a child wanting to go beyond the approved territory of the parent infected the Pixar films. In fact, a child wanting to go beyond a reef despite his father’s wishes is the exact dilemma at the beginning of Finding Nemo (2003).
Within the first ten minutes or so of this movie, I was reminded of three others. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but, as the movie went along, I kept being reminded of previous films. The movie began to fall apart when those reminders reinforced the fact that this movie is trying to reach a bar set by those prior Disney films or other animated features that this movie doesn’t quite rise to meet. For example, Dwayne Johnson, probably the most famous Samoan in Hollywood, plays Maui, a magical creature who is stuck on a tiny island. His set-up and introduction are very reminiscent of the Genie from Aladdin as voiced by Robin Williams. The Genie was too a magical creature who was stuck, not on a tiny island but in a tiny lamp.
Johnson for the most part tries to be as great a character as the one Williams gave, but it’s just not as good. Johnson is of course gregarious, charming and funny. Yet, he doesn’t even come close to Williams who was working on another level. Williams was also a better singer than Johnson. The song “You’re Welcome” as sung by Johnson is supposed to be the equivalent to “Friend Like Me” as sung by Williams. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t resonate the same way.
Moana and Maui take off on this adventure together. It’s colorful, comical and at times exciting, but I don’t think it’s well-written in terms of leaving us with anything more than a generic message that feels watered-down from Clements and Musker’s aforementioned, previous films. It feels like a lesser version of something they’ve done before but this time with a Polynesian face on it. Their movie also seems to promote the idea of colonialism, which I’m not sure is the best of things to promote.
Moana and Maui also have this bickering or antagonistic, road trip or buddy cop relationship that was at times frustrating and fun. Sadly, by the end, I wasn’t feeling whatever bond the movie wanted us to feel for the two of them. By the sheer fact that they went through this adventure, I can accept their camaraderie, but if there were supposed to be some kind of emotional resonance, I didn’t feel it at all. Recent animated films like Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings did a better job of bringing together two bickering or antagonistic characters on an adventure than this one.
Speaking of which, there is an image in this movie that seems straight ripped out of Kubo and the Two Strings. Moana and Maui have to retrieve a fish-hook that’s stuck on the top of a giant crab. A battle ensues between them and this large creature. It’s similar to a scene where Kubo and Beetle have to retrieve a sword that’s stuck on the top of a huge skeleton. A battle ensues between them and that large creature. That scene is perhaps better done here given that Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords and Rio) who voices the giant crab is singing and giving a fairly good comedic performance, whereas the huge skeleton was just basic grunting noises and no singing.
It was nice that this movie went for the ending, which mirrored the ending to ParaNorman (2012). The problem is that this movie doesn’t have the character connection and emotional resonance that ParaNorman had. It tries to make the villain seem like that villain isn’t so bad or it tries to make the villain seem more human or someone to whom we can relate. Yet, Clements and Musker don’t provide us enough to make that leap.
By the end, the only thing is the eye-candy that is the animation. It’s as beautiful as any of Pixar’s best or as beautiful as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which does share some visual similarities. The characters are beautiful. The people don amazing sarongs. The women have seashell-inspired jewelry. The men are all bare-chested and tattooed. The vocal performances aren’t half-bad, but again the songs are nowhere near as memorable as in The Little Mermaid or Aladdin.