Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big Disney fan. I studied Cinderella for my undergrad dissertation, I’m looking in to examining the effect Disney has on the folklore canon for my mRes, and I tend to score ridiculously well on those stupid ‘identify the Disney film from this obscure detail’ quizzes. Naturally this meant that I had to go and see Moana as soon as it came out. And now I am finally getting around to reviewing it!
Moana follows the eponymous heroine, the only daughter of a Polynesian tribe chief, as she goes on a journey to save her home. With demi-god, Maui, and her inept chicken, Heihei, Moana sets out to return a stone stolen by Maui to the goddess Te Fiti and learns to be the adventurer that her seafaring ancestors always intended.
Naturally Moana is being set up as the next Frozen and, with a strong female character and less focus on romance, you can kind of see why. And it honestly does have some things that I feel it does better than its predecessor – the animation holds a warm and comforting pallete, it’s stylised in a way that is reminiscent of the culture it portrays and the traditionally animated Disney films, and the humour is better. It is a fun watch. But I don’t think it will beat Frozen.
Moana is a good character. Stubborn, adventurous, and just generally good. She does have some Mulan-esque moments in the first act, where she seems unsatisfied with the societal expectations placed on her, but she soon settles into her role as chief-to-be because she’s just that good of a character. Unfortunately that’s the main thing I can say about her. She’s good, she’s doing everything for her village, and that’s… it really. She is a watchable and likeable character but I felt that there wasn’t enough depth to her. Comparing Moana to Frozen, where Anna and Elsa both have very different attitudes to life but somewhat similar flaws that you can see coming from their upbringing, is just rather disappointing. It felt like a regression to some of the earlier, much blander Disney princesses and it felt like a let down.
If a film takes a character’s name then I feel like they should be the one you want to watch. It happens with Mulan. And Tiana from Princess and the Frog. But unfortunately not really with Moana. The person you want to watch Maui. Like Moana, he is stubborn. Unlike Moana, he is funny, flawed, and, most importantly, he has depth. His back story is intricate and provides motivation for his actions that go well beyond ‘saving my village’. He is outwardly selfish but is really just looking for love from humanity. And he has a proper story arc! There is character progression! All the things I want from my titular character and it comes from Maui. But the film’s name is Moana.
The main villain in Moana, and particularly the animation related to the villain, is amazing. SPOILERS abound in this paragraph btw! Te Kā is genuinely scary but, like many things in this film, predictable. Through all the time that I was watching I kept questioning why we weren’t getting more information about this Big Bad. All we really knew was that Te Kā appeared, bringing darkness to the ocean, desperate to steal the stone from Maui. Usually this lack of information indicates either lazy scriptwriting or, more likely, that the villain is not who we think they are. Te Fiti, comparatively, was brought up often. The conclusion was obvious. I hate obvious.
Moana‘s plot rather frustrated me. If you stripped it down then it was great, the typical save-the-world quest, but there were so many annoying offshoots that it felt more episodic than I tend to expect from a big Disney film. It’s basically a copy-and-paste of the Hero’s Journey with the call to action, the refusal of the call, the testing enemies, the seizing of the sword… Wait, all these things happen to Maui! Man, Moana, this film is not yours. Did they focus on Moana just so that they can make money from the Disney princess merchandise?
To be honest, there are several elements in Moana that do feel like blatant merchandise grabs. Leaving Moana as your basic good girl, accepted by parents and potential to be loved by all children, and putting it forward as a Disney princess film when the main character is really Maui are just the beginning. The worst moment, however, is the stupid Kakamora coconut pirates attack. They serve no other purpose than to clumsily call Maui to action and to sell toys. I worked in a Disney store during Moana‘s release – there is merch of these characters that only appear for five minutes. Probably because Te Kā isn’t exactly the most toy-friendy villain…
I enjoyed watching Moana but I feel like it is definitely one of Disney’s lazier movies. It follows the Hero’s Journey astonishingly closely and the main character is a blank slate. It’s supposed to be quite a feminist film, as Moana is set to rule without a man by her side, but she isn’t even the main character in her own film. Some of the songs are good but I just don’t think that it can come close to competing with Frozen.