Film review: Disney keeps it fun and traditional with Moana

Moana will leave you with a smile on your face.

This image released by Disney shows characters Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, left, and Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, in a scene from the animated film, “Moana.” (Disney via AP)
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Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements

Stars: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clements

Three and a half stars

Hollywood behemoth Disney has certainly been mixing up the genres with its movie releases in 2016.

From disaster movies (The Finest Hours), fantastical journeys (Alice Through the Looking Glass) and high-concept, chess-themed weepies (Queen of Katwe) to the usual clutch of Marvel superhero adventures (Captain America: Civil War, Dr Strange), the studio has come a long way from the days when its bread and butter was an animated mouse and his animal friends.

For its penultimate release of the year – before the blockbusting space action of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – the studio returns to its roots: what better way to celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday than with a classic Disney Princess movie?

These characters have been having a hard time in certain quarters lately. Even though they frequently boast powerful, courageous personalities, they tend to be overwhelmingly caucasian and size 0. A 2016 academic report by Brigham Young University’s Sarah Coyne concluded that “Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal.”

Disney has perhaps taken note – Pacific Islander Moano is Polynesian and her physique is a little more realistic than many of her forebears. There is even an apparent knowing nod to the stereotype when Moana insists that she’s not a princess – technically she is the daughter of an island chieftain.

That all said, this is a kids’ cartoon that parents will be hoping can keep the kids entertained for an hour and a half – and for the most part they will be pleased with the results.

Unusual setting aside, the story is fairly traditional Disney fare: young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) lives on a seemingly idyllic island, the residents of which are forbidden from travelling beyond its shores. She loves her home, but yearns to learn about the wider world, though her overprotective father will have none of it. When great danger threatens her people, however, she sets off on a mission to reclaim an ancient gem stolen by a demigod called Maui (Johnson).

The result is a classic hero’s journey, as Moana seeks out Maui and asks him to help her: challenges are tackled, friendships formed and tested, despair is faced and lessons are learnt. The story is familiar, but the impressive animation and music should ensure that even the most jaded of viewers goes home with smiles on their faces.

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements helmed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin for Disney, and they prove here that they can deliver just as well in 3D as they did in those earlier 2D classics.

The ingeniously animated ocean, for example, becomes almost a character in itself (Moana means “ocean” in her Polynesian language), while a gang of pirate coconuts that resemble sort of steam punk Minions are another high point.

The music – by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Disney stalwart Mark Mancina (Tarzan, Brother Bear) and traditional Polynesian musician Opetaia Foa’i – should ensure Moana is on the Oscars shortlist, and Johnson proves a surprisingly able pantomime crooner.

The movie will face tough competition in the family market this weekend, with Fantastic Beasts still performing strongly at the box office, but with the National Day holiday coming up, and Christmas just around the corner, it is the perfect option for a mum, dad and the kids.