One of the things that Disney movies specialize in is empowering characters who have been held back in one way or another. Obstacles take the form of family deaths, patriarchy, or just general poor circumstances, but in nearly every case, the main character or characters use their unique skills to rise above their lot in life.
But even though most of their movies share a general theme, Disney is better than most at showcasing a diversity of characters, such as in the new film Moana. Set on a fictional Pacific island, it follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the island’s chieftain, as she struggles to make life better for her people and herself.
Although Moana is drawn to the water from a young age, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) forbids her, for unknown reasons, from going beyond the reef surrounding the island. But when the island’s food supply starts to dwindle, Moana, with the encouragement of her wise grandmother (Rachel House), sets out to right the wrong of the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who was the unwitting cause of the island’s decline.
For most of its running time, Moana is essentially a buddy comedy, as the preening and egotistical Maui tries to take charge of the journey, only to be blocked at every turn by Moana’s talents and personality. Clever gags, like the ocean returning Moana to the boat over and over again or the dumb actions of her pet rooster, Heihei, keep the laughs coming to balance out more serious elements.
The film, featuring a cadre of directors and writers, breezes by thanks to fun storytelling and a variety of great songs, including ones written and sung by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Standouts include “We Know the Way” by Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i, “How Far I’ll Go” by Cravalho, and “You’re Welcome” by Johnson, who shows off a surprisingly good voice.
One of the best things about the film is that, despite the film featuring a female protagonist, there’s not even a whiff of any romantic entanglements. This is a rarity in any movie, much less an animated one. Disney should be credited for letting Moana find herself through her own force of will, without being distracted by an unnecessary romance.
Moana may not be a world-beater along the lines of Frozen, but it’s another terrific film from a studio that rarely has a clunker. And if you’re not singing “You’re Welcome” on the way out, you’re a stronger person than I am.