It’s the premise of Moana, now screening at Rarotonga’s Empire Theatre.
Thing is, it’s also that of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Brave and scores of other animated films about teenage girls.
It’s not a bad one by any means, and a captivating foundation for children especially, but Moana is, like so many recent films, dressed up as something wholly new and bold and corrective against all the sins of fairy tales past. There’s an entire scene where Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) fights back against the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) for calling her a “princess” with such fervour that the ultimate effect isn’t “hooray” but more, “who cares?”
What is so wrong with being a princess versus being the daughter of a chief who will eventually lead the island? It’s just semantics.
It’s distracting from both the real virtues of Moana, of which there are many, and also fairly dismissive of the mere “princesses” who came before who basically accomplish the same things. In fact, the only real advancement lately is the recent excising of a love interest, but that is probably more to do with modern audiences wincing at the idea of a 16-year-old heroine getting married than actual progress in developing more complex female characters.
But perhaps that, too, is just getting bogged down in semantics in another way and deflecting from the very wonderful and joyous Moana, a classic Disney pic to the core, bursting with stunning visuals, good hearted humour, adventure and some truly catchy songs from Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda.
On Moana’s island, everything looks like a dream: saturated colours and lush landscapes surrounded by an ocean, the lifelike waters of which are a technical and artistic marvel. But Moana’s people distrust the ocean and outsiders and keep themselves isolated from the rest of the world.
Moana, however, is drawn to the sea, and the sea, a character in its own right, is likewise drawn to her. She has been selected as its chosen one. Thus, when things on the island start to decay, it’s Moana, encouraged by her quirky grandmother Tala (Rachel House), who takes the initiative to sail away to try to return the stolen heart to the fabled island of Te Fiti and save her people.
She journeys first to get the help of Maui, a cocky showoff who has his own agenda that doesn’t involve taking orders from a pushy teen, and then across the ocean where Moana, Maui and a dimwitted chicken encounter all kids of obstacles, including a glam rock hermit crab (Jemaine Clement) at the bottom of the ocean and a vindictive lava monster.
The fable of “Moana” is sweet, often funny, spiritual and epic, although Johnson’s reliable charisma gets lost under the animation and the writing. Moana, however, is an excellent character with spirit, doubts, drive and a heck of a voice. She is a perfect addition to the roster of modern Disney heroines and one whom young girls will admire for years to come, princess or not.
“Moana,” a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.”
Three stars out of four.