‘Moana’ a breath of fresh ocean air from typical Disney princess trope

Updated Nov 22, 2016

Ever since she was a little girl, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) has been drawn to the ocean and the promise of adventure it brings.

“See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,” she sings. “And no one knows how far it goes.”

But her dad, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), chief of the island of Motunui, has drawn a line firmly in the sand: “No one goes outside the reef. You must find happiness right where you are.”

All is well for a while, but then a darkness starts to settle over the island. Its plentiful coconuts are rotting. Fishermen are returning with empty baskets. Suddenly, the future of Motunui Island is at stake.

On her deathbed, Moana’s eccentric grandmother who loves to dance among the stingrays reminds Moana that the ocean is on her side and that she alone has what it takes to stop the devastation.

“Go. Go. The ocean chose you,” urges ailing Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House). “There is nowhere you can go that I won’t be with you. Go!”

Moana, now 16, must make a decision: Do as her dad says and stay, or set sail in the hope that she can indeed find a way to save her people? I’m sure you can guess what this future island chief — not princess, as she smartly clarifies in the movie — decides.

Disney’s latest film, “Moana,” set in the islands of the South Pacific, follows Moana as she searches for Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), a hulking, shape-shifting demigod with a hulking ego who, years earlier, stole the Heart of Te Fiti, a powerful gem that has the power to create life. Because it has been removed from its rightful spot, darkness is slowly consuming the world. In order to save her people, Moana must find Maui and take him to return the gem.

With the ocean as her sidekick (as well as Heihei, arguably the world’s dumbest chicken, who has unwittingly stowed away with Moana) and following her grandmother’s advice to look to the stars for guidance, she quickly locates Maui, who assumes she is there for an autograph and scratches one out using Heihei’s beak. “When you use a bird to write with, it’s called tweeting,” he quips.

She finally convinces the reluctant Maui — who has lost his magical fishhook and needs to find it — to join her on her mission, and off goes the unlikely team.

Maui, despite his tough, enormous, tattooed facade, has his own set of troubles and self-doubts. Moana reminds him that he doesn’t need a magical fishhook to be special, and he teaches her how to be a wayfinder like her ancestors before her.

Maui gets lots of laughs from the kids, from the antics of the animated “mini Maui” tattoo on his chest that serves as his conscience to his plentiful zingers (example: “Really? Blow dart in my butt cheek?”). But while he’s likable enough, I had a hard time buying that he could really, truly care for Moana. When at one point he leaves her during a time of need, prompting her to question her ability to complete the mission, I couldn’t help thinking, “Good riddance.”

The movie also lacks the kind of power-packed Disney soundtrack that shined in some of its other recent films, although “Moana” does offer a few standouts, including a completely random but wholly entertaining performance of a song called “Shiny” by a giant bedazzled crab named Tamatoa (voiced by Jemaine Clement), who croons that he aspires to “sparkle like a wealthy woman’s neck.”

While it may not rise to the levels of “Frozen” or “Zootopia,” there’s a lot that Disney gets right with this movie. Visually, it’s beautiful to watch, from the turquoise waves on the shore to the shimmering shells beneath them.

Mainly, though, it’s a breath of fresh ocean air for everyone exhausted by the too-familiar princess-on-a-mission Disney trope. From birth, Moana is a respected part of her community, and her parents and grandmother are proud of who she is and the fact that she will one day make a fantastic chief, just like her father and his father before him. There is no love interest for Moana — she doesn’t need one.

The theme of female empowerment runs throughout the movie. This is best captured by the beautifully crafted scenes between Moana and Gramma Tala, whose relationship alone makes this movie worth watching. Their transcendent bond and Gramma Tala’s words of wisdom, strength and reassurance are sure to resonate with anyone raised by strong women and likely to inspire anyone who wasn’t.

Overall, “Moana” is smart, funny, thoughtful and full of heart — everything you’d hope to find in a chief, or a movie about one.