Moana ★★★★½

It has been a curious thing to watch Disney grow up culturally as a studio. Many of the steps they've been taking in terms of gender representation reach an apex in Moana, a film about a Polynesian chief's daughter (newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) who ventures beyond her clan's borders in an effort to save their island from dying. There are shades of The Little Mermaid here, as Moana's journey is in defiance of her father's wishes. But why I think Moana is a better film—probably second only to Aladdin of all the John Musker/Ron Clements collaborations—is for the richness of its character.

Scripted elegantly and with care by Jared Bush, this is a film about ancestry, about culture, and about responsibility. There is an element of chosen one/hero's journey storytelling, but far more interesting is the way the film complicates Moana's relationships to her station. Everything she does is out of a sense of duty to her people, to her family, including to go against the wishes of her father. It's all played in such a way that there is never a clear right or wrong decision: her father's wish to protect her comes from his own trauma, and her grandmother's wish for Moana to follow her heart comes out of a deep cultural knowledge of the tribe's history. Moana's conflicted feelings and devotion to the bigger picture make her a far more compelling and rich protagonist than someone like Ariel—"I'm not a princess," Moana, and the film, keep reminding us—, and her pairing with the flawed yet arrogant trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) makes for a fascinating exploration of choice, responsibility, and righting wrongs.

Most of the characters and back-story are well-integrated with the themes and make for a strong, character-driven story. There are minor pacing issues, including a diversion to a greedy crab played by Jemaine Clement—it's a fine vocal performance, but the film's least-needed scene and weakest musical number. But overall the set pieces are strong and the ending is dazzling. It is worth noting that there is no real villain figure in the film, aside from a lava demon called Te Kā who is more of an obstacle than an actual character. The focus is always on the two characters at the centre.

It is possible Moana is the most visually-beautiful film Disney has made. This isn't the weird, muted softness of Frozen. The textures are richly detailed and the prominence of water—notoriously hard to animate as it is—is impressive. Disney made bounds in their rendering of hair in Tangled but here the animation of curly and wet hair goes a step further, and is exquisitely done. The way they've integrated Maui's tattoos into the character is a delight. They come alive in a way that evokes the clay paintings in Disney's Hercules in appearance, but function as part of the character, able to interact with and affect him.

The songs by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Broadway It Guy Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) are very strong, especially the tracks "How Far I'll Go" and "You're Welcome." Narratively, these two function similarly to classics like "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid and "Friend Like Me" from Aladdin respectively. They're as catchy as memorable as those too, and a merciful respite from the pop sheen of "Let It Go."

For all the praise being heaped on Kubo and the Two Strings this year, this is a more narratively rich and no less visually-pleasing film. Disney's evolution is not just interesting, it's downright inspiring.

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