Disney’s latest animated film, Moana, warms hearts and touches souls with its educational and vibrant depiction of the Polynesian culture.
Moana, a 3D animated film by Walt Disney Animation Studios, is the 56th Disney animated film since Snow White, which released in 1937. The film tells the story of Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter and heir of the chief (Temuera Morrison) of Motonui, a small Polynesian island, who struggles with her deep longing to explore the vast ocean and her duties to her village. With her island slowly decaying, Moana is determined to find a solution. Encouraged by stories of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), Moana sets off on an adventure to find him, accompanied only by her ‘stupid’ pet chicken, Heihei (Alan Tudyk).
The plot of the film is intriguing, with a story that has some basis in cultural myth and one in which viewers, especially those with knowledge and experience of the Polynesian culture, will find engaging. Being a New Zealander who has been exposed to the Maori and wider Polynesian culture, I found Moana‘s story to be incredibly topical and one in which New Zealand audiences could identify with. Together with interesting characters, great humour, fabulous musical numbers and spectacular visual animation, Moana is a film that is bound to entertain for years to come. It may even top Disney’s Frozen to be one of the best animated films of the decade.
Right from the outset, Moana can be seen as a film which rejects stereotypes and focuses on a strong female lead. It is also the first Disney film in quite some time to have cultural heritage as its focal point. The last animated Disney film to have a strong female heroine and which centres on history and culture can be said to be Mulan, which released in 1998.
Culturally, Moana depicts a fairly accurate representation of what island life is like, particularly back in the day. Living within a tribe or community means living as part of a collective, wherein to benefit one is to benefit all and the shared effort is what keeps the people happy and the island thriving. This is illustrated by Motonui’s chief, who urges Moana to remain on the island to keep her people safe and happy, as there was nothing to explore beyond the reef. Of course, Moana believes otherwise, and her longing to explore can be said to be the same longing felt by voyagers, which led them to explore and discover new lands.
Similarly, the film includes aspects of spirituality and mythology that some Polynesian cultures hold dear. This is shown through the associations the film makes with all things being treated as ‘living’. The ocean, for example, is treated like a living being and is animated as such, with the ocean playing a role in helping Moana achieve her goal. Not only that, but all creatures are depicted as having a spirit, which lives on even beyond death. This was definitely an aspect of the film which intrigued me, having grown up in a culture with similar beliefs, as well as the film reminding me of another rather spiritual Disney animated film, Brother Bear.
In many ways, Moana sets itself apart from traditional Disney animated films and challenges its own film tropes and stereotypes, a feat which represents the age we are living in today. For instance, Maui pokes fun of the traditional Disney princess films, associating Moana with being a typical princess off on an adventure with her animal sidekick, which Moana outright rejects, despite technically fitting the mould.
Furthermore, the film places more emphasis and focus on Moana as the lead character, with Maui playing a side role to assist her on her journey, instead of being a love interest, which is what most male lead characters become in Disney films. Of course, Maui does play an importance in the film and even has his own introductory song but this didn’t detract from Moana or her screen-time.
In addition, no where in the film was there a potential husband for Moana, despite the film being centred on traditional tribal cultures. It was incredible to watch Moana be treated as an equal to any male counterpart. This is illustrated in her father’s speech about Moana becoming the next chief, like her father and his father before him, and so on, as if it was completely natural for a female to succeed a line of traditionally male leaders. What was especially unique about this is that there was no hint of times changing or that life on the island would change with Moana as chief. The succession was treated as entirely normal, which is a massive step for Disney, who has predominantly portrayed their female characters as needing their male counterparts. For example, Pocahantas, despite being a strong female character with her own values and opinions, still felt that traditional need to respect her father and his wishes for her to marry a man of his choosing. Likewise, Mulan needed to pretend to be male in order to fight for her country.
Despite detaching itself from Disney’s traditions, Moana still teaches viewers the typical Disney lesson of being true to oneself and to not forget who you truly are, which is always a nice little message to take away from a film. Similarly, what is a Disney film without a villain’s musical number? Moana certainly makes full use of this trope, with a song almost reminiscent of The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ and The Little Mermaid 3‘s ‘Just One Mistake’.
Visually, Moana is absolutely stunning with scenery that looks almost realistic. Together with a great cast of characters, each unique and well developed, the film added a sense of realism, as if an adaptation of true events. Overall, the film had me grinning and on the edge of my seat with interest and had me wanting to purchase the soundtrack, which is always a good sign with Disney films.
Disney’s Moana is an excellent film which challenges traditions, while maintaining certain aspects of the film which makes it ‘Disney’. With fantastic 3D animation allowing for stunning and realistic scenery, as well as a fabulous soundtrack, which rivals that of Frozen (in my opinion), Moana is the perfect family-friendly film to watch this holiday season.