In keeping with its tradition of spotlighting diverse ethnicities and sectors of the world, Disney showcases the vibrant culture and landscape of ancient Polynesia in its new animated feature film “Moana.” Created by Ron Clements and John Musker, the brilliant minds behind classics such as “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid,” “Moana” proves once again that Disney is a master of storytelling.

The film tells the story of Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of an island chief, who is torn between her responsibility toward her people, her love for her island and her longing for the sea. Realizing her destiny, Moana embarks on a quest to enlist the help of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, “Ballers”) and reverse a curse of natural decay catalyzed by his foolish actions. Lin Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina deliver original and infectious music that blends English and the Tokelauan language in lyrics and sound.

Disney masters the art of world building with the island of Motinui, Moana’s home. To carry out this ambitious project, the team of creators conducted diligent research on the native flora and fauna. In the film, the island is abundant with native plants and animals meshed seamlessly into the landscape, with vibrant colors and a diverse and rich ocean life. When watching the film, it’s difficult to catch and fully appreciate the scope of minute details involved, but the inability to spot these details lends to the success of the film in constructing a natural and believable landscape. The creators also payed careful attention to the culture of the native people, reconstructing traditional garb, tools, body art and textiles. Traditional dance and language are incorporated heavily into the fabric of the film, blending the world of ancient Polynesia with the audience and viewing culture of the 21st century.  

In “Moana,” mythology moves from a tradition of one-dimensional oral storytelling to a fully immersive and interactive landscape in which there is no separation between the real and the fictional. Throughout the film, Moana interacts with icons of the stories she grew up hearing, and these figures both aid and inhibit her on her quest. The film also integrates the ghosts of her Polynesian ancestors, who act as visual reminders of the importance of voyaging in Moana’s culture. Moreover, the film emphasizes the dynamism of nature. The demigod Maui claims responsibility for the tides, sun, breeze, palm trees and the very island they inhabit, emphasizing his integral role in their world. The goddess Te Fiti, whom Moana shares a connection with, also serves as the physical emblem of life itself. Through its manipulation of mythology, Disney weaves ancient tradition, oral history and nature into one dynamic and fluid narrative. This reveals an audience desire for stories that break away from traditional, one-dimensional narratives in favor of stories that challenge the boundaries of time and space.

In regards to nature and innovative storytelling, the film’s only shortcoming lies in its characterization of the sea. In the film, the ocean is a dynamic character, imbued with personality and agency, playing the role of Moana’s guide and friend. However, as the most expansive and powerful natural force, the ocean in the film plays a minimal role in comparison to its full potential. While the ocean’s consciousness is imaginative and interesting, it would have been amazing to see its full power unleashed.

“Moana” is a refreshing break from classic tropes in the lineage of Disney princess movies. With the absence of a male love interest, the film is another success in providing feminist cinematic role models, especially in a tradition of passive female heroines. Additionally, Moana represents the first woman of color to star in a Disney movie without a love interest. The film is interestingly self-aware, commenting on its own tropes yet simultaneously reversing them. In one scene, Maui comments that “If you wear a dress, and have an animal sidekick, then you’re a princess.” Yet Moana, in character and the film itself, is unlike any of its Disney princess predecessors. 

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