Release date: 2nd December 2016/Watch the trailer here
‘If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,’ the demigod Maui tells Moana in response to her ardent protests to the contrary. Truthfully, she’s not a princess: she’s the daughter of the chief of the island village that she grew up in, but she does happen to have an animal sidekick or two (Pua the pig and Heihei, the idiotic chicken).
The 56th animated feature film for Disney, Moana (the Polynesian word for ‘ocean’) is set thousands of years ago across the Southern Pacific islands, following Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as she embarks on a quest to seek out a demigod and save her people from a terrible curse. Maui (Dwayne Johnson), as it turns out, wants nothing much to do with Moana and her quest. After losing the magical fish hook that grants him his powers and incurring the curse that is plaguing the world by stealing the heart of Te Fiti, he is no longer the hero that he once was.
Moana is a film that has so much to offer. Without a handsome prince to distract Moana from her quest (and even if there had been, she wouldn’t have given him a second glance), the story has plenty of available room to explore the dynamic between Moana and Maui. While they may have succeeded without the other, they make a far better team when they’re together (despite their near-constant bickering). Maui teaches Moana to navigate the ocean that she loves so much, while she helps him to feel like a hero again as she overcomes her own self-doubt. Their relationship is not the only thing in Moana that is surprisingly touching, either; there are many moments that will bring a tear to the eye of even the most steel-hearted of adults.
As well as containing some beautiful, feel-good messages at its heart, Moana is absolutely gorgeous on the outside, too. In particular, the computer-generated animation that brings the ocean to life is stunning, but traditional animation is also used for comedic effect in giving Maui the most unlikely of sidekicks: his own tattoos, which dance across his skin to tell his tale and offer him the occasional fist bump.
These tattoos are best utilised during Maui’s introductory musical number, ‘You’re Welcome’, which will undoubtedly be stuck in your head for days. With original songs by Opetaia Foa’i and Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Moana has some of the most catchy and memorable songs of a Disney film to date, and it helps that the actors performing them have charisma by the bucketload.
Moana is a new kind of Disney heroine (because she’s not a princess, remember): she’s smart and spirited, and the very last thing on her mind is finding her Prince Charming. There’s still enough that feels familiar here to not expand Disney’s horizons by much, but you can’t deny that the studio still knows what really appeals to people of all ages: the sights, the songs, the sense of humour – everything that combines to make it impossible to watch Moana without a smile on your face.