There must be more than this provincial life!” So goes the melancholy cry of the Disney princess. But it becomes so much more, something so much bigger in Moana, yet another triumph for the Mouse’s animation arm. Sweet, funny, exciting, and moving, this is a transcendent experience that brings to the screen a pan-Polynesian cultural tradition that has been entirely absent from mainstream entertainment. Here is a wonderful mythology of demons and demigods, and a creation story unlike any we’ve seen before: this is ancient fantasy that feels fresh because so few of us have been exposed to it before (unlike European-flavored fantasies and Judeo-Christian creation myths, which get so much play). But Moana’s story, set thousands of years ago, also has much that is pointed to say to us today.
The first thing electrifying about Moana is that its heroine isn’t just a girl longing to see, literally, new horizons. Yes, Moana — pronounced, in case you’re wondering, “Mo-ana,” not “Moan-ah” — is driven to find out what lies the beyond the reefs off her beautiful South Pacific island paradise, reefs beyond which her people are forbidden to venture. What makes her special is how she will achieve this: she is chosen by the ocean itself, as a reward for a kind act toward a sea creature, to take on a quest involving a long and dangerous journey that will, hopefully, save her island and her people. (Turns out paradise is threatened, as it usually is.) From Ulysses and Jesus to Luke Skywalker and Neo and that doofus in The Lego Movie, our literature is replete with “Chosen Ones” who are male. The hero with a thousand faces finally, this time, has a female face. A brown female face. A thousand hoorays would not be enough.
There is, in the grand Disney tradition, much soul-searching and lots of “be yourself” encouragement, but we’ve never seen anything like how that takes shape here via Moana (the voice of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho). She wonders why she dreams of doing something that her father, Chief Tui (the voice of Temuera Morrison: Green Lantern, Couples Retreat), insists cannot be attempted. When she cries “What is wrong with me?” I gasped in astonishment: that cuts deeper into the disconnect between what we’re supposed to want and what we actually do want than any Disney cartoon has done before. And then, in a sequence that is even more astonishing, Moana experiences a soaring vision of the past of her people as daring explorers who crossed vast oceans, who were brave and intrepid, not confined by comfort and timidity. There’s nothing wrong with Moana, and she isn’t a misfit: she embodies a bold and restless spirit of her people that has been denied for too long.
This is wonderful. A girl. A “mere” girl. The very incarnation of her culture. Amazing.
It is impossible to overstate how much girls — and women, and boys and men too — need a heroine like Moana.
The adventure that Moana embarks upon requires her to find the trickster demigod Maui, who long ago stole the heart of the mother of the earth, which caused some bad things to happen and darkness to spread, etc. The heart needs to be put back, and only Maui can do that with his magic. When she finds him, she discovers an arrogant jerk (with the voice of Dwayne Johnson: San Andreas, Furious 7) with no desire to help humanity, certainly not after how ungrateful we all are for everything he did for us (roped in the sun, set the tides rolling, and so on). She will convince him that it is in the best interests of his reputation — which he is inordinately wrapped up in — to help her.
The incomparable Disney way of combining goofiness with profundity reaches hugely entertaining new levels here: Maui’s animated tattoos, which act as his conscience, as angels on his shoulder prodding him in the proper direction, are characters in their own right. In a cave of treasures in a realm of monsters, Moana and Maui meet a spectacularly vain villain who is both a comic distraction and a cautionary tale. That the animation is splendid goes without saying. And the songs, oh the songs! Just as a musical, as a story that evolves through song, this may be the best Disney entry since the heyday of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman in the early 1990s (with Beauty and the Beast as the very best), or at least since The Lion King, thanks to Samoan-New Zealander singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa’i; Mark Mancina (among his many other credits, Lion King); and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Dwayne Johnson gets a hilarious song for Maui: turns out The Rock has a very pleasant singing voice.)
Ultimately, Moana’s quest, the wrong she must put right, is one with a very applicable message for us today: Do not piss off Mother Earth, because she will turn on you… but it’s never too late to try to fix the mess. If Moana becomes an inspiration for youngsters today to become the green warriors of tomorrow — which doesn’t seem very unlikely at all — she may end up embodying the spirit not just of her Polynesian peoples but of all of us. And that would truly be unprecedented.