Disney’s beautiful CG spectacle will warm your soul
“We know where we are! We know who we are!” sing the Pacific Island navigators of Moana in We Know The Way, as their boats crash through an ocean shimmering with sunlight and foam. It’s a declaration that stays with you, partly thanks to the song’s nuclear catchiness — the Samoan cry of “aue aue!” that follows will ring in your soul for weeks. But also because it catches the film’s spirit in a fingersnap.
Feuds, firings, and the most radical Disney princess yet: the making of Moana.
Getting all metaphysical about show-tunes can be treacherous territory, even ones co-written (as Moana’s are) by Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda. But the two contrasting senses of identity picked out in that song — where we’re from and where we’re headed — are what make Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 56th feature tick.
Moana of Motunui (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is the distant descendant of Oceanic navigators who feels wanderlust washing over her as she hits her mid-teens. (Her name is the Samoan for deep water, and she shares it with a 1926 film about Polynesian life by the documentarist Robert J Flaherty.) Her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), is a staunch dry land type — but an ecological disaster forces his daughter to take the initiative, along with a small canoe, and set off for far-flung shores with a crystal that can restore balance to the kingdom.
You’ ll have perhaps noticed a distinct lack of handsome princes here. Even more so than the spikily revisionist Frozen, whose $1.3 billion fur-lined boots Moana has the unenviable task of stepping into, the film pushes the Disney Princess into uncharted waters in more ways than one. It was directed by two venerable masters of the form, John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo behind The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog and oth- ers, and they know where this long-established formula can be prodded and coaxed in new directions.
A Let It Go- like heart’s-desire ballad is basically a non-negotiable — and in the soaring, aspirational How Far I’ll Go, Moana gets a fine one — as is the comic relief, which here takes the burly form of Maui (Dwayne Johnson, adorable as per), a prank-prone Polynesian demigod who can shape-shift with a swipe of his magic fishing hook.
But other seeming cornerstones are dug up with gusto. Not least of them is the prince quota — and even Moana’s official title, which in one scene she irritably clarifies isn’t “princess” at all, but daughter of the chief. (“Same difference,” Maui shrugs, unpersuaded, while looking at Heihei, Moana’s pet rooster, who’s tagged along for the trip. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”)
For the most part, Moana evolves the genre rather than rebuilding it from scratch — and its recognisably classical shape doesn’t leave space for the kind of genuinely provocative ideas that ran through Zootropolis, Disney’s other, different great 2016 animated feature. But it’s nonetheless brimming over with spectacle and visual inventiveness.
When Moana and Maui come face to face with the Kakamora — buccaneering, coconut sprites whose ships resemble waterborne versions of the rigs from Mad Max: Fury Road — what follows is the wittiest, tensest, most fiendishly choreographed action sequence of the year. Then there’s Tamatoa, a giant, Jemaine Clement-voiced crab with penchants for Bowie and bijouterie, whose own musical number, Shiny bursts and glows with glam-pop fluorescence. Setpieces like these are where the studio’s technological prowess blazes brightest, and also in the ambient effects such as waves, storm and sunbeams. What dazzles you isn’t their digital ingenuity, but their beauty.
More impressively still, Moana reconciles all of this with a handdrawn aesthetic that feels genuinely expressive and spontaneous. Often it’s actively spotlit, as in the You’re Welcome musical number which has Maui and Moana vibing out inside a rainbow of doodles — or in Maui’s mini alter ego, a Jiminy Cricket-like sentient tattoo brought to mad, elastic life by the great Eric Goldberg, the animator behind Aladdin’s Genie.
But elsewhere it’s so natural you almost don’t notice it. When Moana tumbles into the ocean, she’s often scooped up by a friendly swell, and the effortless expressivity of that single, curved line — which during the film portrays emotions that range from affection to frustration, shock to amusement, that are immediately and crisply recognisable — is an invisible triumph of tactile visual thinking. CG animation can be an innately icy medium, but three years into Disney’s post-Frozen era, they’ve never felt warmer.
Dir: John Musker, Ron Clements Voices: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk PG cert, 113 mins.