When you combine the directors responsible for “The Little Mermaid,” “The Princess and The Frog,” and “Aladdin” with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, the likeliest result is the creation of a Disney film worthy of being called a classic.
This past Thanksgiving, Walt Disney Animation Studios released their second feature of the year, “Moana,” to the public. As the weekend wrapped up, the film surged to the top, earning over $93 million worldwide. “Moana” currently holds the record for the second-biggest box office opening, behind fellow Disney film “Frozen” which came out in 2013. Currently, “Moana” has earned $177.4 million worldwide and is expected to continue its box-office success into the new year.
The film focuses on Moana, the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe, and Maui, a trickster demigod. Moana is chosen by the ocean to guide Maui to reunite an ancient relic back to its resting place and, in doing so, save the lives of her people and the islands. The film draws upon the vocal talents of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho Jermaine Clement, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk. The expertise of the voices of the main cast carries the film a great deal. Most importantly, Johnson’s comedic timing and Cravalho’s singing are able to elevate the standing of the film even further. Without this carefully chosen cast, the film could easily have faded into the background of mediocre Disney films.
Not unlike other Disney princess films, “Moana” operates as a coming-of-age tale, but the biggest difference from other princess films comes from the absence of a romantic lead for the protagonist. Instead, the film’s thematic focus is on duty, loyalty, and familial ties. With this distinction, both the film and the titular character appeal to a broader audience. Moana also disputes the title of “princess” because she is actually the daughter of the chief. Maui responds that, “If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Instead of using her words to denounce his aside, Moana navigates the ocean and outwits monsters, all with that same dimwitted animal sidekick. Moana joins the ranks of Belle and Ariel, but she is a heroine more along the lines of Mulan. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker rectify their mistakes with Tiana of “The Princess and the Frog” by displaying a heroine that physically and mentally embodies strength and tenacity, instead of just marketing her as such. Their ability to showcase Moana as a heroine promotes her as the anti-princess without broaching cynicism.
Clements and Musker initially sought to create a movie based on the Polynesian legend of Maui. Before they could do anything further with production, the two were tasked by the head of Disney Animation Studios John Lasseter with researching Polynesian culture. This commitment to research and traveling to Polynesia singled the film as Disney’s most culturally authentic film to date. Although not a huge feat for the studio, their efforts link to the overall acceptance and appreciation for the movie by the Polynesian and non-Polynesian people. The directors’ trip to Polynesia led to the creation of an organization called the Oceanic Trust. It consists of anthropologists, cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers hailing from Samoa, Tahiti, Mo’orea, and Fiji. This group was integral to many details of the film, from story development and song lyrics to character design. The trust suggested implementations to the cast and production to base the film on Polynesian culture. Ultimately, the work done by the trust manifested in a movie that Polynesians can be proud to call their own, including a main vocal cast with roots in Polynesia (excepting Tudyk), an initial script penned by New Zealand screenwriter Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), and the inclusion of Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i.
The film’s merits do not come from the plot’s complexity, but rather from its soundtrack, sense of place, and characterization. The movie hinges on the formulaic hero’s journey and does a great job adhering to that formula. However, there is no surprise to its narrative, and it borders on predictable. Contrarily, the film is refreshingly predictable. The original music from Miranda ’02 and Mark Machina give color to this narrative. The weaving between the two languages—English and Tokelauan—makes the songs not only Disney-appropriate but appropriate on a global scale. Also, the non-English lyrics contribute to the sense of place created by the directors. The Oceanic Trust made sure that the story and the design of the film felt unique to the Polynesian triangle. The animators pulled out all the chops for their animation itself; the characterization of the wave and the attention to character details, particularly in Moana’s hair, makes the audience feel that great care has been put into the film.
The reason “Moana” is the Disney movie to beat comes largely from its attention to detail and cultural sensitivity. “Moana” can fit into several genres, including both comedy and drama, and is littered with cinematic references to past Disney films. Clements and Musker have given the world a Disney movie to attend to the new age, and it has not gone unappreciated.