Film Review – Moana (2016)

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Disney is not short of experience when it comes to pushing out heart-warming crowd pleasers. With their latest, Moana, the house of mouse of has blended a tried-and-tested princess on a journey of discovery with a very welcome look at colourful Polynesian culture. Accurate or favourable representations of Southern and Central Pacific communities are not exactly overflowing across cinema screens and Disney’s latest is a lively and adoring look at peoples who are pretty massively underrepresented on film.

The titular star is a young woman set to inherit leadership of a remote island community. The weight of expectation and duty is laying heavy on her and she longs to explore the ocean and live a little before taking up the mantle of island chief. Carrying the burden of a previous tragedy, her father dissuades her from journeying beyond the safety of the protective reef, but when the island’s crops begin to fail, Moana gets her chance to investigate the wider world.

Disney’s story teases characters out of Polynesian myth and blends them with a coming of age story. Mythic heroes, villains and demigods populate a story that’s visually enchanting and hugely colourful. It’s also a story that takes place within a living, breathing environment; a fragile world at risk from evil forces and the pro-environment, pro-planet message is explicit.

In purely structural terms, Disney hasn’t pushed the boat out massively. It’s the familiar case of a young hero growing from within and gaining a greater appreciation of herself, her friends and her family. The sheer exuberance with which Disney has weaved this tale elevates the movie from a rainy day, DVD babysitter, to a genuinely joyous experience.

This is a world inhabited by tiny, anthropomorphic coconut pirates, molten lava titans and jewellery-obsessed giant crustaceans. Moana is so vibrant and exhilarating that, despite some plotting simplicities, it repeatedly teases a smile. Dwayne Johnson goes a long way to stealing the show as the barrel-chested, egomaniacal Maui, a shapeshifting demigod who has lost has magic fish hook and with it his power. A central musical scene which sees Moana face off with the aforementioned crab, played like an underwater David Bowie by Flight of the Concords alumnus Jermaine Clement, is bafflingly gleeful and one of the most jubilantly bonkers things I’ve seen all year.

Like so much of the big movies this year, Moana doesn’t take too many risks narratively speaking. In many respects it resembles a more cheerful, family-focused sister-movie to Marvel’s Doctor Strange, also owned by Disney. It may not reinvent the wheel, but it rolls along with such childish glee that you can’t help but smile.

[rating=4] | Chris Banks

Animation, Adventure, Comedy | USA, 2016 | U | Walt Disney Studios | 2nd December 2016 (UK) | Dir.Ron Clements, Don Hall | Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson,Jemaine Clement,Nicole Scherzinger