In Disney’s latest princess film, the daughter of a Hawaiian village chief hears the call of the ocean, recognizes her island’s need for redemption, and sets out on the quest of a lifetime. But before Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) can return the Pounamu stone that is the island goddess’ heart to its owner, Te Fiti, she must wrestle (emotionally and physically) with the demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson). On a raft, in the middle of the ocean, this young woman faces the adventure that will determine the rest of her life.
With music in part written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the story soars through oceanic vistas, as Moana hears the caution of her parents (Temeura Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger) aimed at keeping everyone safe on the island but experiences the pull of the water that her ‘crazy’ grandma (Rachel House) acknowledges. From the very beginning, we can see this is about nature versus nurture, security versus courage, calling versus… settling. Yes, while there’s something here about the danger that Moana experiences because she ignores her parents’ pleas; yet, ultimately, she’s rewarded (and the world is saved) because she recognizes who she is.
Along the three-task adventure that Moana embarks on, she first rescues Maui from his island prison, second helps him recover his magic-infused hook, and third delivers Te Fiti’s heart to her. Sure, she’ll be accompanied at times by a cute pig, and always by the least intelligent animal sidekick ever (Heihei, the chicken voiced by Alan Tudyk). There’s also a comic interlude with a band of minuscule pirates in coconut masks. And yet … this Disney film is deeper than it is hilarious.
Two specific ‘lessons’ stand out to me hours after seeing the film.
The first is the sense of calling that Moana experiences even as a child that her parents either ignore or can’t see because of their fear. As a pastor, I have an acute, sometimes undesired, sense of my calling. As Moana struggled with hers, abandoned by Maui on the raft, I was reminded of the times when my call seemed to heavy for me to answer (or lift), and how I wanted to just … let it go. But I am also aware, as was Moana, that in the midst of her crisis, that wisdom arrived in the person of someone who cared about her who reminded her who she was, and what she could be. [As a side note, I am aware of my call as pastor, as husband, as father, as friend… calling is by no means isolated to Christians or to pastors.]
The second is the transformative way that the film wraps itself up. I will not spoil the way that it goes down – but I might recognize that the naturalistic-meets-spiritual tendencies of the movie highlight some conservationist inklings and a sense of the way that the Garden of Eden will one day be restored. I won’t say more for fear of ruining that for someone, but I was reminded of the way that Mad Max: Fury Road went to the source of the problem or returned, rather than finding the solution in running away and hitting the reset button.
As a result, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Moana. I put it in my top five animated films, even my top three, but I have seen… most … of the animated films 2016 offers. In the end, the story of a young woman discovering herself, and of redemption coming to all involved, stands as a testimony to the beauty of Disney and the power of faith to rise above the darkest of life’s storms.
Special features on the Disney Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD Combo Pack include a deleted song, “Warrior Face,” the music video for “How Far I’ll Go,” and how Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i made the music happen overall. Easter eggs and the short film – “Inner Workings” – also make for some added entertainment factors; fans will dig going behind the scenes to discover how the Hawaiian Islands’ culture impacted the story’s style, fashion, and plot, while “Things You Didn’t Know About” takes us into the lives of the cast.