Disney’s Moana wraps a Polynesian folk tale around a charming children’s film, populated with the quirky animal sidekicks and catchy musical numbers we’ve come to expect. When these two threads are woven together well – when mythic grandeur is wrought in computer-generated splendour – the film sings like the best of Disney’s back catalogue. But the film’s minor deviations from the post-Pixar buddy-comedy blueprint are ill-advised, revealing the thinness of the characters propping up those big songs and splashy special effects.
Let’s start with the good stuff, then. The animation here feels like the fullest realisation of Disney’s foray into 3D models. Yes, there’s some homogeneity when it comes to the supporting cast – lots of keg-shaped torsos for the men and shapely hips for the women – but there’s a distinctness to the core character designs lacking from, say, Frozen. (The lack of elaborate costumes and different hair colours to distinguish the characters is a factor, I’d assume.) Moana’s big moments – when the sea opens up during a climactic encounter, or when a sting ray spirit sweeps across the water – feel truly big, putting your heart in your throat and goosebumps across your skin.
The cast – which is, with the exception of Alan Tudyk voicing a brainless chicken, composed entirely of people of colour – anchor the epic sweep of the story with the sweetness of humanity. It’s easy to praise Dwayne Johnson’s easy charisma as the demigod Maui, or Jemaine Clement’s comedic cameo as a avaricious crustacean called Tamatoa, but the standout is surely debutante Auli’l Cravalho as the eponymous protagonist.
In particular, Cravalho and Johnson exhibit the kind of easy chemistry that buddy films like this rely on; I imagine their off-screen dynamic – inexperience teenager working with one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars – has to have helped here, given that’s essentially their dynamic on-screen. Moana, you see, has been tasked with finding Maui – who’s been missing for hundreds of years – and tasking him with returning the “heart” – a magical green MacGuffin – to the creator goddess, Te Fiti. Maui, as a millennia-old, shapeshifting demigod, is understandably reluctant to follow the orders of an impudent teenager.
The pair’s contentious relationship has all the ingredients of a great, if familiar, buddy comedy. Think Toy Story. Far from the first of its kind, but arguably the platonic ideal of the form – and certainly hugely influential on modern studio animation. Buzz represents the über-confident, self-assured counterpart to Woody’s anxious, self-obsessed character. While the specifics of their ensuing storyline – Woody’s flirtation with villainy after his social position is challenged, for instance – might vary in subsequent animated buddy comedies, the core character arc remains. The cocky one’s self-doubt kicks in right as the anxious one develops their own self-confidence, and the roles are switched before the pair are ultimately united with a single goal and an enduring friendship.
It’s a classic formula because, well, it works. This year’s Zootopia, for instance, mostly follows this model with minor deviations, and it pays dividends. But Moana’s deviations are ill-advised. Moana’s doubts are manifold and understandable: she sneaks away from her family to find Maui, and faces the very real possibility that she’s on a fool’s quest and has abandoned her people to face ruin without her leadership. So she’s the Woody, naturally! However the expected transference of self-confidence – she wears Maui down with her persistence, he begins to doubt himself – is sabotaged by the screenwriters’ insistence on returning to the well of self-doubt again and again and again with both characters. The effectiveness of the buddy narrative in its simplicity, and by over-complicating the dynamic – presumably to make up for the thinness of the wider storyline – its resonance is sabotaged.
This is fairly easily forgiven, particularly when you’re watching Maui imaginatively shapeshift his way through a battle with a lava god or listening to a triumphant cut from the soundtrack. Moana’s songs are inconsistent in their quality, however (though this just might be my miserly attitude towards musicals talking; there are some great numbers, even I’ll admit!), and the comedic elements are underplayed to my tastes. You would think with eight (eight!) writing credits you could muster up a few more jokes!
So Moana isn’t a masterpiece on par with the studio’s golden age, but it’s a well-crafted, enjoyable film that will provide plenty of entertainment for the littlies over this coming summer. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a role model for girls of Polynesian descent – and, if nothing else, another Disney princess costume to choose from. Whatever the film’s flaws when it comes to its application of the buddy formula, it’s hard to be anything but won over by its inclusivity.