The following is a review of Culture Fly
In 1989, with the release of The Little Mermaid, Disney embarked on a journey to turn the Princesses into feminists. The studio has stumbled, but Moana is the endpoint. Disney has finally made an empowering, progressive and feminist movie.
Unlike the subversive Frozen, Moana sticks to the formula to subvert it. Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the princess. The hilarious Hei Hei is the cute animal sidekick. It is its obvious Disney-ness that makes the film a refreshing and important work as the convention makes the differences and absences stand out.
The biggest absence is the boyfriend. Moana is too focused on saving the world to flirt. Where as empire-saving Mulan only received honour when a boy came over for dinner and Ariel did everything for Eric, Moana embarks on her own journey because she wants to. Removing the love interest frees the story to pursue her spiritual journey and the film contains Disney’s most fleshed out self-realisation story. You don’t need a boy to be successful.
Moana as a character is as three-dimensional as the superb animation. She is as smart and determined as she is reckless and stubborn. She’s more than a sketch and newcomer Cravalho gives a staggering vocal performance. Moana is a role model who doesn’t need to be saved.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everything goes smoothly. Her charted course follows the standard hero’s journey, sailing away from her island to find a demigod and save the world. Again, the conventionality of this narrative makes the film’s diversions starker. At the point where everything is darkest, Moana pulls herself and Maui (Dwayne Johnson) into the light. The emphasis is all on her, and it is inspirational. The pair’s platonic buddy-cop banter makes the scenes between the characters engaging whilst stating that men and women can be friends.
Johnson’s performance is characteristically charming, with his sarcastic asides to mini-Maui drawing laughs. Mini-Maui acts as the egotistical demigod’s conscience. Instead of being an angel on the shoulder, he is the tattoo on the pectoral. The 2D animated mini-Maui shows animation’s raw power. Everything you need to know about him, Maui and their relationship is told through movement. It’s visual storytelling at its finest.
Great animation comes as standard, but sometimes the Princess films struggle with their music. Co-written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, the music is catchy and furthers the story. ‘How Far I’ll Go’ is an empowering anthem and ‘Your Welcome’ gives you the Rock singing.
The music, and the film, are soaked in Polynesian culture. Part of the Disney formula involves westernising an individual princess’ original culture so the film can play to a wider audience. Sometimes, that can feel forced but here the westernising is hidden. This might be the first Disney Princess film to prioritise mythology over merchandising.
It is still going to sell toys but Moana is more than a cash grab; it’s the most emotional and empowering Disney film. Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker, working in 3D for the first time, pull off their best directing performance. It is fitting the pair that pushed Disney onto the path of enlightenment back in 1989 possibly complete the journey. The coldest of hearts will succumb to Moana’s charms.