Question. Do you think that when Ron Clements and John Musker show up at the Disney studios they’re all…
‘Cos they’d kinda have to, wouldn’t they? I mean, they’ve earned that. If they wanted to stop at every cubicle and say “Oh by the way, we’re the reason you have a job. You’re welcome.” who among us would begrudge them that? With The Little Mermaid, Clements and Musker kick-started the Disney Renaissance, catapulting the animation studio back to cultural relevance and critical and commercial acclaim. And then, just for poops and giggles, they did it again in 2009, with the Princess and the Frog marking the end of the Lost Era and inaugurating the current golden age of the canon. Come to think of it, I have a feeling that Disney could have saved themselves a lot of worry and financial distress over the decades if they’d just hung a sign on the wall saying “WHEN THINGS ARE GOING BAD, JUST MAKE A PRINCESS MOVIE”. Seriously, never fails. Okay, apart from that one that almost drove the company to bankruptcy.
Where was I? Oh right, Clements and Musker. These two men wrote the book on the modern Disney Princesses movie. They are O fuckin’ G, or at least as gangsta as one can be while making movies about princesses and their talking animal friends. They are the Biggie and Tupac of this one very specific movie sub-genre.
Moana honestly feels less like a Disney Princess movie, and more like the Disney Princess movie, an attempt to make as definitive a version of this kind of movie as it’s possible to make. That may sound like a compliment…but…
This movie feels like it’s trying to take everything that worked about the previous nine modern Disney princesses (Merida doesn’t count FIGHT ME) and distill them into one character. Moana is all those princesses combined into one. But is she an awesome Megazord or a shambling Frankenstein’s monster?
Let’s take a look.
We open with Gramma Tala (Rachel House) retelling the story of the goddess Te Fiti who gifted the world with life. But then, the trickster demi-god Maui tried to steal the source of her power, the Heart of Te Fiti, by turning into a worm and getting eaten by her massive vagina with stone teeth…
Oh. Apparently we’re not interested in doing an accurate re-telling of Polynesian mythology. C’mon Disney, if you’re not gonna play, why come to the party? Okay, so anyway, Maui found the heart of Te Fiti in a manner that did not involve vaginas in anyway despite the fact that literally nothing in history has ever been made better through the absence of vaginas. He stole the heart of Te Fiti but was attacked by a lava demon named Te Kā who punched his lights out.
Gramma Tala who is recounting the story to a group of children including her granddaughter Moana tells them that Maui, the Heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s magical fish-hook are now lost and have not been seen in over a thousand years. She tells them that unless some brave soul can find Maui and restore the Heart of Te Fiti, darkness will engulf the ocean and all life will go extinct. But her son, Chief Tui, butts his head into the classroom to tell the kids not to listen to crazy old Gramma because no one goes outside the reef and there’s plenty of fish and there’s definitely no monsters and even if there were there’s no evidence that the monsters are anthropogenic and the science is not settled. All the kids are understandably freaked out, except little Moana, who runs down to the sea and discovers to her surprise that she has Moses powers.
So let’s get this out of the way. This is the most beautiful CGI film in the Disney canon to date. Good God damn. The water effects are so flawless they probably should have just filmed an actual ocean and saved themselves a couple of million. It’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Anyway, in this movie the ocean is an actual character that is amazingly charismatic and expressive despite not having any actual, em, expressions.
Anyway, Ocean gifts baby Moana with the Heart of Te Fiti (kids, this is just a movie, NEVER accept gifts from strange oceans) but she drops it on the beach and Tui comes and takes her away from the ocean because it’s time for her to learn her people’s ancient art of montage.
So we get our first musical number, Where You Are, that takes us through Moana’s childhood to her teenage years while accomplishing key world building about the island of Motunui; namely that the people are happy but that they can never leave the island and also that they think coconuts are the fucking SHIT.
But Moana thinks there’s more to life than coconuts. She wants to be where the fishes are. She wants to see, wants to see them swimming. Floating around on those…what’s that word again? Oh. Fins.
As well as Moana’s father we also meet her mother Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and her obligatory animal sidekicks. First is Pua, an adorable little piglet voiced by Frank Welker. Yes, I know the Disney wiki says Pua was voiced by actual pigs but trust me, those pigs were voiced by Frank Welker. When will you people get it through your heads, Frank Welker voices everything. We also meet Hei Hei, the island’s idiot chicken and a walking rebuttal to evolution. Hei Hei is voiced by Alan Tudyk which means…
Oh crap, let me figure this out…
So, under Tudyk’s law if Alan Tudyk is playing a character who doesn’t seem villainous, then he’s the villain.
But if he’s playing a character who seems to be the villain from the outset, then he’s not the villain.
BUT, if he seems at first to be playing a minor villain, then he’s actually playing a minor villain working for the true villain who we previously thought was a minor good character.
And if he’s playing a minor character supporting the hero then he is actually…SATAN HIMSELF!
Tui takes Moana to the top of a mountain where there is a pillar of stones. He tells her that each chief of the tribe has laid their stone one the pillar, and that when she’s ready to become chief she must do the same.
So Moana throws herself into being who her people need her to be, teaching dancing, holding people’s hands during the incredibly long drawn and painful tattooing process and talking a local elder (voiced by Alan Tudyk which means…ah fuck it) out of cooking and eating Hei Hei. The old man points out that Hei is literally too stupid to live but Moana says that “sometimes our strengths lie beneath the surface”. I’m sorry, Moana? What hidden potential do you think this chicken has, exactly?
Now’s probably as good a time as any to talk about Auli’i Cravalho, who despite this being her first movie role, gives possibly my favourite performance of any Disney princess. She’s just so good. She nails the comedic and dramatic beats perfectly and makes a character who might simply feel like a checklist of stuff that worked before actually work as a real, fleshed out personality.
But despite what all the musical numbers say, life on the island is less rosy than it seems. Consider the coconuts…
Ahem. Consider the coconuts. While Moana is on some on-the-job chief training some of the village women tell her that there’s something wrong with the coconuts she takes a look and…
Okay guys listen to me very carefully. I’m Irish, I know what to do in this situation. Get on some boats. Get on some boats right now. Start sailing towards New York and don’t stop until you see the statue of Liberty. Settle in the slums, build your own political machine, found a few police and fire departments and within a century you’ll have the presidency (may he rest in peace).
But Moana instead tells them to plant some coconut trees somewhere else (oh gee, why didn’t we think of that?) but that’s not the only problem. The fishermen aren’t catching any fish, and Moana asks them if they’ve tried fishing in the other part of the sea and they say they’ve tried that, and she asks them if they’ve tried fishing in the other other part of the sea and they say they’ve tried that too. And then Moana suggests the other other….and they’re all “Let me stop you right there.” Moana then suggests they go beyond the reef but Tui angrily shuts that idea down and he and Moana argue and make the fishermen really uncomfortable.
Later, Sina explains that Tui was once like Moana and longed to explore the sea. But when he and his best friend crossed the reef, their boat was smashes and Tui’s best friend drowned. And now, Tui hates the sea, and would punch it in the dick if he could. Sina tells Moana that “Sometimes, who we wish we were, what we wish we could do, is not who we were meant to be.” This leads us into How Far I’ll Go, our “I want” song.
Okay, here’s my feelings on the soundtrack. It’s great!
Buuuuuuut it’s not as good as Frozen.
Oh Simpsons gifs. What did I do before ye? Yes, yes. It’s really good, and Lin Manuel Miranda is an absolute genius but for me this soundtrack falls just short of that instantly iconic X-Factor that made Frozen such a cultural event. And again, it feels that this movie’s main weakness is that it’s just a little too indebted to the Princess movies that have gone before. How Far I’ll Go feels like a very conscious attempt to make an “I want” song rather than just a song. It knows it’s an “I want” song, if that makes sense. And yeah, it’s a good one, but it’s still probably my least favourite song in the movie for that reason. Anyway, Moana sings about being torn between her duty to her tribe and her love of the ocean and then goes and rows out onto the water with her little animal friend.
But, as any old sea dog will tell you, the sea be a harsh mistress, yaar, and Moana almost drowns and gets washed up on the beach where she’s found by Gramma Tala, her kooky, sassy granny who understands her better than anyone else in her family.
Tala tells Moana that when she dies she wants to come back as a manta ray “or else” she says “I chose the wrong tattoo.”
Tala shows Moana a secret cave where a fleet of sailing boats are hidden along with a massive tapestry depicting the voyages of the ancient islanders. This leads us into We Know the Way, a brilliant song that basically works as a two minute short film depicting generations of Polynesian explorers traversing the Pacific. Moana realises that her ancestors were voyagers who settled the island instead of hatching from coconuts like she’d always been told. Moana asks Tala why they stopped and she explains that after Maoi stole the Heart of Te Fiti, the ocean got more and more dangerous and the boats stopped coming back. So the islanders stopped sailing, hid their boats and basically stuck fingers in their ears and went “Lalaalala everything’s fine” while outside the world got steadily more Pirates of Dark Water.
She gives Moana the heart of Te Fiti and tells her she must go and find Maui and bring him back to her island so that he can put it back. Moana crashes a tribal council meeting and tells the villagers that there’s a shit ton of boats under the island and that they have to go questin’. Tui is furious and says he should have burned the boats years ago and that the heart of Te Fiti is just a stone. They’re interrupted by a tribesman who tells Tui that his mother has fallen ill. They rush to Tala’s bedside where she’s dying. Tala whispers to Moana to get on a boat and find Maui, saying “When you find him, grab him by the ear and say “I am Moana of Motunui! You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti!”
Moana tearfully says goodbye to her grandmother and sails away from the island singing a reprise of How Far I’ll Go, her grief at losing her grandmother overcome by her joy at finally escaping the place she’s been held prisoner her whole life.
While sailing, Moana hears a weird tapping and realises that it’s coming from inside the boat. She opens the hatch and finds that Hei Hei has stowed aboard. So, initially, it was supposed to be Pua who joined Moana on her quest (one of the reasons he features so prominently in the marketing) but the creators swapped him out at the last minute for Hei Hei. I…I’m borderline on Hei Hei, I’ll be honest. I don’t know whether I find him hilarious or really annoying. The physical comedy is very well executed, but on the other hand, you can only watch a chicken almost kill itself so many times.
Also, has anyone else noticed that Ocean is kind of a psycho? Like, one minute it’s helping her find the island and being all friendly and giving hi-fives and then next it’s straight up trying to drown her. It’s like Ocean is Moana’s abusive boyfriend.
After a storm, Moana is washed up on an island and wakes up on a beach with her hair all mussed.
The island turns out to be the prison of none other than Maui, demi-god and hero to all, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Jonson, demi-god and hero to all. Seriously, you realise the Rock is Western civilization’s equivalent of Hercules, right? Future archaeologists will study the tales of his great deeds, the battles he won against Stone Cold Steve Austin, his epic rivalry with Vin Diesel and the time he crashed the 2020 Republican convention, smacked Donald Trump with a chair until his hair piece flew off , claimed the nomination and became president (damn it let me dream!). The guy is just the stuff of legend. Great wrestler, great actor, great human. Seriously, is there anything the dude can’t do?
Yes. Yes there is. Wow. Okay. Yeah. Dude can’t sing.
But…while he’s not a great singer, he is a fantastic performer and I gotta admit I find it really hard to dislike his rendition of You’re Welcome, where Maui humble brags to Moana about all the amazing stuff he’s done for the human race. Also, we’re introduced to Mini-Maui, a little tattoo of himself that Maui has that’s alive. Mini-Maui acts as Maui’s conscience and is brought to life by…OH MY GOD IT’S HAND-DRAWN ANIMATION! HAND DRAWN ANIMATION IN A DISNEY MOVIE! IT’S BACK! DARLING! I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD!
Maui treats Moana like a starstruck fan and offers to autograph her oar with Hei Hei saying “When you use a bird to write, it’s called tweeting.”
Folks, let me tell ya. Disney movies are like bears. You can spend years living near them, watching them. And they’ll never bother you. And you’ll trick yourself into thinking they’re your friends. That you share this forest with them. And then, one day, for no reason. They’ll turn on you. And they’ll hurt you. They’ll hurt you worse than you ever thought possible.
My point is, that joke was not very good.
Moana tells Maui that he has to come with her to restore the heart of Te Fiti, but he wants nothing to do with it and keeps throwing her off the boat only for Ocean to keep throwing her back. Realising that her mission is to escort a vain, self-obsessed man-baby…
…Moana appeals to his ego, telling Maui that if he restores the heart he’ll be a hero to all mankind again. But they’re interrupted by an attacking fleet of Kakamora. The Kakamora are little critters in coconut armour who look like Miyazaki’s kodamas crossed with Immortan Joe’s War Boys.
I love the Kakamora because they’re wonderfully designed and hilarious characters and also because in Irish “Kakamora” means “Large Shits” and I’m a child. Anyway, after escaping the Large Shits, Maui agrees to help Maona as long as they recover his magical fish hook. This means a detour to Lalotai, the realm of monsters, where the hook is being held by Tamatoa, a giant crab voiced by Jermaine Clement and the hardest working David Bowie impersonation on Earth.
On the way, Moana has a dream where she finds her self back at Motunui, just in time to watch her home, family, and everything she’s ever loved be destroyed.
Okay, maybe that one’s a reach.
She wakes up to find that they’ve arrived at Lalotai and Moana and Maui dive into the underworld yadda yadda lazy bastard kookaburras it’s late and I couldn’t find a screenshot moving on.
After sneaking into Tamatoa’s cave, Moana distracts the crab by getting him to sing about himself so that Maui can get his hook back. The song, Shiny, is my favourite song in the whole movie (minority opinion, I know). But of course, Tamatoa only gets five minutes of screentime or so and is not even our main bad guy. Lindsay Ellis did a great video recently on how the traditional Disney villain is going extinct and it’s a damn shame because we deserve a better class of criminal. That’s not to say that Tamatoa is a bad villain, actually the opposite. I think he’s great, we just needed more of him. If it was up to me, I’d have Tamatoa remain a presence in the story all the way through, maybe have the Kakamora be his henchmen and have him follow Moana and Maui all the way to the final battle with Te Kā. Just as Te Kā is a dark opposite of Moana, (a fire demon who doesn’t know who she is), Tamatoa is Maui if he let his selfishness and vanity and superficiality completely overcome the better part of his nature. So you’d make the final battle two on two, Maui against Tamatoa and Moana against Te Kā. Well anyway, we gots what we gots. Maui gets his hook back but finds that his shape shifting powers don’t work anymore and Tamatoa beats him and nearly eats him…
Anyway, Moana manages to save Maui from Tamatoa by tricking him into thinking a barnacle covered in biolumescent algae is the Heart of Te Fiti (as a deevershen).
Back on dry land, Maui thanks Moana for saving him but says that the quest is a bust because, if he can’t even beat a mini-boss like Tamatoa, Te Kā will beat Te Krāp out of him. Moana asks how Maui gets his tattoos, and he says that they appear magically when ever he does something epically heroic (well sure, if you want to do it the easy way). She asks about the one on his back showing a woman throwing a baby into the sea and he sadly tells her that the baby is him. Maui’s parent’s didn’t want him, and tried to drown him. He was rescued by the gods who made him a demi-god and he went back to the humans, lassoing the sun, bringing them fire and coconuts and all to win their love and affection. And it was never enough. Until finally he stole the secret of life itself from Te Fiti. It’s a very sad tale about a man so desperate for love and the gratification of his ego that he ended up dooming the world. I’m sure there is a real world parallel somewhere out there but dammit I just can’t think of it right now.
Anyway, Moana gives Maui a pep talk and boosts his self esteem and through the power of montage he recovers his shape shifting abilities and they sail to the island of Te Fiti. Along the way, Maui teaches Moana how to sail and the two become closer. Maui tells Moana that he thinks he knows why the ocean chose her. He says that a thousand years ago, her people stopped exploring, and the ocean misses their journeys from island to island and wants to bring that back. This, incidentally, is based on real history. The Polynesians did actually stop exploring for millenia only to suddenly resume and no one really knows why. Some archaeologists choose to blame changes in climate that made sailing more difficult because archaeologists are all boring.
They finally arrive at Te Fiti and Moana wishes Maui good luck as he goes to battle Te Kā. It goes…not…great…
Maui crawl back to the boat and begs Moana to retreat but she insists on trying to get past Te Kā. Maui gets him by Te Kā again and this time his hook is damaged. They escape, and Maui is furious with Moana, blaming her for what happened to his hook. Maui coldy says that he’s not going back and risking his life just so that she can prove herself. Moana orders him not to go, saying “The ocean chose me!”
“It chose wrong.” Maui replies, and flies away.
Devastated, Moana breaks down in tears and tells the ocean that it must choose someone else, and gives it the Heart of Te Fiti. But then, a ghostly manta ray swims towards her boat and the ghost of her grandmother appears to Moana.
Tala tells Moana “Hey, you’re the chief’s daughter, you crossed the ocean, you’re descended from voyagers, you’re fuckin’ Moana and you got this!”
Moana swims to the bottom of the ocean, takes back the Heart of Te Fiti and sets sail for the island again. With some nifty sailing she manages to get past Te Kā and almost gets to the island but Te Kā capsizes her boat and is about to give her a hot molten bitch slap when Maui arrives. Maui tells Moana to head for the island while he holds off Te Kā. Moana finally reaches the place where Te Fiti should be, but instead finds only an empty void in the ocean. And Moana finally realises what Te Kā actually is…not an enemy to be defeated, but someone who has been done a great wrong and who needs help.
This moment, where Moana walks fearlessly across the ocean floor towards Te Kā, is maybe the single most beautiful sequence in the entire canon. It’s beautifully animated, and the score is exquisite and the lyrics are pure poety. But more than that, the reason this scene moves me to tears every single time I see it is because, for once, it’s not strength or power that wins the day and saves the world. It’s compassion. And forgiveness. And love.
And it’s why, for all that I may rip on her for being an amalgalm of every other Disney princess, I think Moana may just be the greatest of all of them.
Moana restores the heart and Te Kā transforms into Te Fiti. Maui approaches the goddess and apologises for what he did.
Still, Te Fiti’s a good sport about the whole thing and even fixes Maui’s hook. And Moana returns to her island a hero, and she and Maui bid a fond but entirely platonic farewell, because Moana is the first Disney princess who doesn’t have a love interest oh wait…
More of a greatest hits album than a groundbreaking new sound, Moana nonetheless makes up in execution what it lacks in originality. It’s a beautiful film, a great musical and very, very worthy addition to the canon.
Maybe some of the best water effects ever generated, and Disney’s most beautiful CGI film to date.
Tamatoa is a great comedic villain and really deserved a bigger role. Te Fiti needs more personality.
Supporting Characters: 15/20
Solid but mostly types we’ve already seen in other Disney movies, the cute animal sidekick, the wise, sassy grandma, the over-protective Dad with a temper. The only one who really stands out as original is Hei Hei.
FINAL SCORE: 88%
Don’t kill me guys. Hamilton is still the best thing ever.
NEXT UPDATE: 31 May 2017
NEXT TIME: Join Mouse as he takes a look at the red-headed step-child of superheroes…