Film review | Moana: Take one for the tribe

It’s a story that brims with vivacious colour and wit • 3.5/5

Don’t you dare sail away: Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) strike up an uneasy friendship in Disney’s latest 3D extravaganza
Don’t you dare sail away: Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) strike up an uneasy friendship in Disney’s latest 3D extravaganza

Polynesian mythology is the key source of inspiration for Disney Animation Studios’ latest 3D extravaganza, and loaded as it is with celebrity voice talent – from Dwayne Johnson to Nicole Scherzinger – it is also, happily, a meticulously animated and heartening story of a young girl seeking her destiny against cautious family advice. 

It’s a story that brims with vivacious colour and wit, even if it may not in fact be the most elegant example of myths repurposed for kid-friendly animation purposes, given how the complexity of the source material requires a somewhat stretched-out first half to deliver tons of exposition. 

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker from a screenplay by Jared Bush, Moana gently lulls us into the idyllic world of the titular heroine (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) – where her grandmother Tala’s (Rachel House) storytelling prowess proves to be far more impressive for Moana than her father Tui’s (Temuera Morrison) overly cautious imprecation to never swim beyond the reef that encircles their cosy little island. 

But when a drought threatens to reduce their community to starvation, Moana decides to side-step her father’s authority and listen to her grandmother instead: embarking on a reckless journey to the oceans – accompanied by her pet chicken Heihei (Alan Tudyk) – to find the trickster deity Maui (Johnson) and force him to return a stolen artefact to the now-enraged goddess Te Kā… in the hopes that this will restore the natural balance and enable her fellow islanders to live off the fat of the land once again.

Reluctant leader: Moana
Reluctant leader: Moana

With a story skeleton put together by a committee of writers too sizeable to mention here, Moana is, in some ways, as classic and streamlined a hero(ine)’s journey as they come. The core conflict, after all, is about literally breaking out of one’s comfort zone to face the choppy seas on the road to both self-fulfillment and communal betterment. It’s classic as they come, but in this case it’s embroidered with a vividly imagined palette. 

This comes with its problems, too: there’s a bit too much exposition in the film’s first half, with slightly too much running time being dedicated to Moana’s family background and explaining away the mythological underpinnings of what she’s about to face. 

But when it hits the ground – or rather, the sea – running, it does so in earnest, with Johnson’s always-game voice performance lending the necessary sympathetic touch to the overconfident but also fragile Maui; an oaf who’s difficult to hate despite his overbearing ego and the trouble he ends up causing. 

Richly realized to the end, Clements and Musker’s film doesn’t skimp on the detail either, whether it’s the animated tattoos on Maui’s sizeable hulk of a body, or the inclusion of Flight of the Conchords alumnus Jermaine Clement as the voiceover actor for the secondary villain role of the hoarding coconut crab Tamatoa.

Visually stunning though hampered by a long introductory half, Moana nonetheless remains a memorable, heartening time at the cinema: telling an empowering coming-of-age story that’s refreshingly diverse enough to offer something new to the severely homogenised cinema ecology of late.