(Originally posted 9th December 2016)
I complained a lot in our episode on Frozen about the way Disney approaches its female characters. For me, Frozen was something of a step backwards, albeit not a huge one, and showed that they weren't trying to move on with the times. Moana was the correction in course that I was looking for.
It feels like Disney have genuinely tried to do something different with Moana, and, for the most part, it works. For starters, the principal character, ostensibly a female, is genderless in terms of the plot. She's also not obliged to have a love story, and in fact, the made-up romantic idea of love is not a part of the film in any way. Something I very much approve of. It's a genuine coming of age tale with the adolescent protagonist striving out on her own to prove herself. It is still all wrapped up in some mythical magical nonsense, but it plays the tone satisfactorily enough to get away with that.
I'm a big fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I think he's an excellent comedy actor with a humble nature. This doesn't necessarily translate in just voice alone but it is a solid performance nonetheless, that gives the larger than life Maui the personality that is required for a character that has to be occasionally grating but ultimately likeable. The heavy lifting is done by previously unknown child actor Auli'i Cravalho as Moana, and it's a solid performance that ticks all the boxes. Alan Tudyk, who appears to be Disney's new mascot, plays the mentally disabled chicken.
There are a couple of scenes that jump out as feeling out of place and it seems to be where we cross the line from legendary figures into just cartoony nonsense. So an immortal demi-god who has super strength and can shape-shift into animals, I can go with, but little coconut people and a giant crab; eh, it just doesn't quite work. These smack of a script that has been rewritten so many times that there are hangovers from previous drafts that don't quite fit any more. As stand alone scenes they're fine but they just don't work in the overall context.
This is partly because they don't fit with the metaphorical aspect of the story that ties into (presumably) real oceanic creationist legends. So a giant woman who lays down and becomes an island feels like it ties in with that. The fact that the big bad is a flaming lava monster – great, obviously tying into the fact that this is a volcanic area and islands are created and destroyed by this huge powerful force. A crab that likes shiny things? I don't know what that's supposed to mean. And I think it would have been better if the ocean itself was less sentient.
There are other elements that suggest a script that has been bandied about. There is a cute friendly pig that gets set up but then abandoned where someone obviously decided that they were going to steer clear of the talking animal sidekick idea. But then we get a disabled chicken that accidentally stows away on Moana's canoe and ends up on the whole journey. It doesn't serve any purpose so it is solely for comic relief but, to be fair, it does actually achieve this. And I've really got to admire the filmmakers' commitment to the disabled chicken gag. They really kept going back to that well, no matter how much of a one note joke it may be.
Let's not forget that this is a musical and the songs here are not exactly stand out. I don't think we've got another “Let It Go” on our hands. But they do work a lot better for the good of the overall film than they do in Frozen and they do at least feel consistent with tone and setting, straddling the awkward balance of big Broadway belting and the more filmic naturalism. Dare I say we're getting the benefit of musical theatre's new darling Lin-Manuel Miranda here (yes, he sneaks a bit of rap in there). The main theme of “How Far I'll Go” is probably the most memorable, if only because it is reprised about four times.
I hope this one does well because I think it's a big step in the right direction. I must be feeling generous.