“And the call isn’t out there at all it’s inside me!”
These triumphant words proclaimed by the titular protagonist of the latest Disney movie, Moana, perfectly encapsulate what makes it a standout among the Disney canon. Disney has long been known for its messages of predestination and rebellion. The formula of a hero destroying all the odds, fighting their family’s preconceived notions, and doing what they were meant to do all along has worked for decades, but no longer.
Moana centers around the young daughter of a chieftain on her island of Moto Nui. Her set path is to follow in her father’s footsteps – to become the chief of their people and lead them as he did. But the ocean “calls” to her, tempting her to go out and chart the seas. Early in the film, she decides to dedicate herself to helping her island, launching into a montage of community building.
Where most coming-of-age movies may have decided to give the adolescent character an outright rebellious nature against her oppressive and undeniably wrong-minded family, Moana chooses to stay with her community. She ultimately leaves, but only when it benefits the community. The narrative continues building on this sense of community and culture, emphasizing it more than any of its animated predecessors. The elements of the film are strung together by aspects of Polynesian culture. Moana’s journey is triggered by memories of her ancestors exploring the seas, families dressed in colorful garb, playing with each other as they sail in search of land. Meanwhile, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s booming soundtrack and Te Vaka’s Tokelauan vocals play in the background. Also, Moana is accompanied by the demigod Maui of folklore who features a living tattoo of folkloric tales. The cultural imagery imbues the movie with emotion and pride, each moment swelling with feeling.
Complementing the spirit of Moana is the massive scope. Disney’s animation department did not skimp on this film; every shot encompasses so much more than just the central characters. The background constantly features waves, be they cascading or calm, moving about with astounding realism. The use of rapidly panning shots of the ocean and sky establish an enormous world of islands and seas yet to be discovered by Disney fans. Not to mention the island littered with Moana’s people, rocky outcrops, and vivid foliage. The story stretches from island to island, containing Moana’s explorable world of coasts and waves.
Like the animation, the story never misses a beat either. The consistent and constant pace of Moana’s journey never lets up, always introducing a new element at every turn. And much of this comes from the character of Moana herself. Her tale is constantly underscored by moments where she looks to others to do things for her, to show her the way. And at each turn, they refuse, forcing her to make her own decisions, choosing from options that aren’t wrong or right. The result is split-second decision making, moments where she displays remarkable resourcefulness and skill, giving her the air of a Sherlock or James Bond.
Moana offers a fresh look at community and self-reliance for Disney movies. She honors her culture and community while remaining a non-dependent girl. The lack of a romantic interest makes the journey entirely her own. She possesses strength, wonder, and quick-thinking, qualities invaluable to any developing youngster. Moana is truly a Disney heroine for the ages.