Back in 1963, Disney had huge success with a project tapping into Polynesian culture. It wasn’t a movie, but a theme-park attraction called the Enchanted Tiki Room that surrounded visitors with singing animatronic birds. Amazingly, it’s taken 50 years for the studio to get around to making a feature film based around the lore of the Pacific Islands. The good news is that Moana was worth the wait. The bad news is that it does not have a single singing bird, although there is a scene-stealingly idiotic chicken called Hei Hei.
It’s been a banner year for Disney Animation. Pixar, watch your back.
Originally it looked like the movie was going to be called Maui: the name of the tattooed demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson. It was his folkloric exploits that first grabbed the attention of directors Ron Clements and John Musker. Then they decided to make the lead character a 16-year-old girl instead, creating a bickering, True Grit-esque dynamic between her and Maui as they navigate cyan-blue seas. It turned out to be an inspired move: the relationship is relentlessly entertaining. “I am not a princess,” Moana insists. “If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” fires back Maui. She does and she has, but there’s no love interest and she is every bit the equal to her big-chested, big-talking, curiously nipple-free companion. Like Frozen, it’s a progressive Disney movie that nimbly dodges outdated tropes.
Also like Frozen, it’s got some mighty music, thanks in no small measure to the involvement of Broadway smash Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are some parallels between this and the musical that made him famous: both Moana and Hamilton involve someone leaving a tropical island to achieve greatness (you could call this Clamilton), and both feature earworming anthems of empowerment (We Know The Way, featuring Miranda himself on pipes duty, is the one you’ll be humming two days later). It’s also hard to resist Johnson singing Miranda’s You’re Welcome: an ode to egotism that is simultaneously a perfect storm of delightfulness.
There is a scene-stealingly idiotic chicken called Hei Hei.
Story-wise Moana doesn’t do anything radical. But visually it’s always finding new riffs, whether with the moving tattoo on Maui’s pec, a kind of inky Jiminy Cricket, or the sea itself, which transforms into an Abyss-style sentient wave to interact with our heroes. There’s a gloriously surreal battle with the Kakamora (think the Smokers from Waterworld, if Dennis Hopper was a coconut). And perhaps most fun of all is the sequence in which Musker and Clements, the duo who brought us The Little Mermaid, take us back under the sea for a confrontation with a glammed-up hermit crab (Jemaine Clement), a foray into a realm of fluoro nightmares.
There’s the odd dull stretch and dud line: “When you have a bird to write with, it’s called tweeting,” is unlikely to age well. It turns out, though, that Polynesian mythology and the House of Mouse go together very well indeed. Between Moana and Zootopia/Zootropolis, it’s been a banner year for Disney Animation. Pixar, watch your back.