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The Disney princess film is something serious for hardcore Disney fans, and there are a lot of them out there. Heck, you might even call the Disney princess film a genre all its own. The Disney princess has been through quite the evolution from the early era when princesses like Snow White and Cinderella seemed to be more passive. The emergence of the princesses from the famed Renaissance period of Disney films like Ariel, Mulan, Pocahontas and Belle, for instance, were much more proactive. Steps in a more progressive direction for a more well-rounded portrayal of these female characters on film for sure. Still, there was work to be done in pushing the expectations of Disney princess tales.
We are now in the Disney Revival era, a time in which the Disney princess has reemerged with a new sense of purpose. Since the era began in about 2009, the folks behind the impenetrable Disney curtain have blazed some trails with returning to the traditional animated form, giving the world the first black princess with The Princess and the Frog, telling a love story of two princess sisters as opposed to one with a prince as a love interest with Frozen, and teaming with Pixar to give it its first female-led film with Brave. All of them are wondrous films in their own way, but they do leave something to be desired on the spectrum of presenting a fully formed, more true depiction of a young woman coming into her own. An antidote for that comes in the form of the current Disney princess, Moana. She fills in those lacking spaces wonderfully.
The character of Moana is the latest in a long line of Disney princesses. She exists both as a part of a legacy and yet very much independent of that legacy, while also forging her own legend. Set in ancient Polynesia, a curse is unleashed upon the world when the demigod Maui steals the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, who created all life in the world. Millennia later, when Moana’s island is affected by the curse, she is charged with a quest to find the missing demigod Maui to restore the world’s balance and save her people.
Moana is probably the best Disney princess movie around. A perfect result in every way of the steps that came before, both in terms of the technical flare the film possess as well as the breadth and depth of the characters. The animation is as strong as ever, water is crisp, clear, and wonderfully rendered, behaving as it does in the real world. The colors are insanely rich and the nuances present make the world Moana and others inhabit feel like a living, breathing situation.
The film is also wonderfully photographed. The camera puts you right into the action. It feels a lot like an exhilarating water ride. We are right on the lonely boat when huge waves of the ocean threaten to destroy it. We move through the sea battles when Moana swings from a rope dodging obstacles or when she is scaling a cliff.
The music, something that is an integral part of a film like this, is incredibly strong. Mark Mancina’s musical score so perfectly fits every situation and overall scope of the tale. It frequently digs deep to the tribal aspects of the culture, speaking to the unspoken and visceral feeling of the adventure. Moving into the songs with lyrics is a whole other beast. The super talented Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame has been busy of late, moving from his acclaimed musical to the Hollywood space producing some music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and now here he is in top form collaborating with Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i of the Oceanic musical group Te Vaka. Miranda joins the ranks of his heroes Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the gold-standard musical team of the Disney Renaissance. Nearly all of the songs are catchy and rousing and should get the Disney approval.
“How Far I’ll Go” is the classic princess song that expresses what the princess wants on her journey, what she struggles with. It has all the power and emotion of some of the best songs Disney princess movies have to offer and is worthy of inclusion among the great tunes. “We Know the Way” the only song in the film that Miranda actually sings himself, is another triumphant one that tells the story of who Moana’s people once were and suggests that they could one day return to their former greatness. The most fun tune comes from The Rock himself in “You’re Welcome”. He clearly is having fun in his performance and perfectly accentuates the self-absorbed demigod. The song “Shiny” is the only one that may take a bit for audiences to get behind, it doesn’t feel like it has the same pop and feeling as the others, but it is fun. The list could go on, but there is so much more to cover.
The music is great and all, but this film would be nothing without the characters who drive its story. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho is wonderful as Moana. You wouldn’t know the was her first foray into performing she does so well. She really gives Moana a range and depth of emotion, she is the perfect princess for our time. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is as good as ever as the arrogant and self-centered demigod Maui. For all the bravado that Maui comes packaged with, Johnson also manages gives the big guy a heart, which makes him all the more likable a character, much like Johnson himself. This is a real flesh and blood person with quirks and imperfections and demigod or not, he isn’t immune to that. This film also benefits from the main cast that have their roots in some way, in the Pacific Islands, which lends the film a degree of authenticity in its characters that so often a film like this might be criticized for if the cast were mostly European or American.
Moana is an amazing Disney film. One that thoroughly respects the culture that inspires it, and one that also respects its characters, especially Moana herself. She is a beautiful, fully formed character with everything you want and need in a Disney princess. She feels physically believable in the world she inhabits, she shows a physical and emotional strength that is great not only for kids to be inspired by but also for adults to admire. Moana is a wonderful film and if you can, you might do well to catch it on the big screen, those action sequences on the sea and how the islands are depicted are worth the view.