In the beginning there was only ocean…
For the inhabitants of Motunui, that ocean is vast, and while once conquerable, it now serves to separate rather than unite, and to provide food. For Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), it calls to her. From infancy, she has a special relationship with it, hell, it’s even the translation of her name. Her beloved Gramma Tala (Rachel House) regales her with tales of myths and legends; amongst them, that of Te Fiti, Te Kā, and Maui.
Moana is fearless and yet torn – as she matures – between her birthright, of becoming Chief or giving in to the niggling voice within and setting sail beyond the reef. She’s at odds with who she is and who her people need her to be. When circumstances change and her village starts to suffer, she summons her courage and determination, along with hapless stowaway Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), and restore the heart of Te Fiti. Her heart previously stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson) – chump, braggart, all hubris and hair (and moko). Moana must persuade the demigod to help her reverse the damage he has caused.
Disney’s last dabble with Polynesian culture was in 2002 with the Hawaii-set Lilo and Stitch. Moana – although the period of time is never established – is most definitely the pre-cursor to Lilo… – the island of Hawaii still to be discovered by the voyaging canoes of the master navigators using star constellations to guide them to lands old and new.
A non-white cast certainly makes a refreshing change. In fact, only the gormless chicken is voiced by a non-Polynesian with the remainder of the cast made up of Hawaiian, Samoan, Māori, and Tahitian natives, this authenticity makes all the difference. Yes, it’s a Disney-fied version of history but oh what a beautiful one with the music making it. Moana’s songs are written and composed by the trifecta that is Opetaia Foa’i, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Mark Mancina. They are heartfelt, incredibly catchy and above all memorable with highlights including ‘Where You Are’, ‘How Far I’ll Go’, ‘We Know the Way’, ‘You’re Welcome’ and the Bowie-inspired, Jemaine Clement solo, ‘Shiny’. This soundtrack is up there with Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994) for standard, originality, and (eventual) longevity.
In keeping with the recent trend, there isn’t a romantic slant to the narrative. Just like Merida in Brave and Elsa in Frozen, the love story element is reframed within a pre-existing relationship, i.e. Merida and her mother, Elsa and her sister, and their respective narrative drives stem from finding their place in the world. By comparison, Moana is about a girl and her grandmother and celebrating tradition, embracing heritage, and restoring balance. Like an animated, musical, slant on Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002).
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements having previously helmed The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and The Princess and the Frog (2009) have, with Moana, created an incredibly respectful window into a previously untouched culture, certainly by Disney standards. This not only gives young vahines a voice but recognisable onscreen figures to identify with. Moana embraces her independence to venture and veer from her expected path, assert herself and listen to that voice within. What’s not to love about that?
The film is a sheer joy from beginning to end; 113 glorious minutes in which to be engulfed, immersed, and swallowed by an entire oceanic culture.
The disc doesn’t scrimp on extras either and these are well worth exploring. Gone Fishing (2 mins) is a short film in which, once again, Moana and, her namesake, the ocean get the better of demigod Maui. The real gem of all the extras is the documentary Voice of the Islands (31 mins) which follows the two Midwestern directors in their research for Moana and documents their visits to the Pacific islands, which included Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Mo’orea; ending their journey in New Zealand. It’s an incredibly fascinating short doc, and depicts this latest animated outing as a real labour of love on all counts. Working alongside the Oceanic Story Trust, Moana was a wholly inclusive project in which Pacific choreographers, linguists, anthropologists, fishermen, tattoo artists are interviewed and encouraged, at every turn, to contribute. It is an emotional, informative and highly interesting watch. This is followed by Things You Didn’t Know About… (5 mins) delivered in one minute segments in which the directors, Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i are asked to answer fun, quick fire questions.
Island Fashion (5 mins) is an informative, if slight, addition to the extras menu in which costume design is examined, complete with storyboards and accessories. The Elements of… (13 mins) looks, in minute detail, (despite its short run time) at the more technical elements of Moana including Mini-Maui – a 2D integration within a 3D animation, drawn by Eric Goldberg. Further segments include water, lava, and hair, all explained by the visual effects supervisors and provide real insight into the extent and painstaking processes required to produce, say, responsive waves, smoke, fire and realistic hair.
They Know the Way: The Making of the Music Moana (12 mins). Again, Disney sure know how to pack a lot of information into a short duration. This covers the process by all three writers/composers/singers Mancina, Miranda, Foa’i and despite the fact that they are from the east coast, west coast and south pacific respectively, their cultural and musical difference worked so well as a collaboration. The Igelese Ete & Pasifika Voices choral clips are beautiful. Although, included on the soundtrack, another bonus feature is outtake ‘Warrior Face’ was deleted from the final film. It was inspired by the haka and is played in a three minute video against storyboards of the scene it would have accompanied. Fishing For Easter Eggs (3 mins) reveals hidden treasures from Frozen, Aladdin, Zootopia, Little Mermaid, Tangled and other Disney iconography which is dotted throughout Moana which even eagle-eyed viewers may have missed the first time.
Both directors introduce the Deleted Scenes (25 mins). These are in storyboard form and depict Moana as an eight year old, with her sibling, and definitely expand on a backstory which failed to make the final film. One feature, perhaps, for older children interested in the process but it’s very repetitive and younger audience members may lose interest. The disc extras are rounded off with the video for the Alessia Cara version of ‘How Far I’ll Go’ followed by the whole song translated into twenty-four languages.
Moana in home release is a worthy addition to the Disney family; full of magic and mana.