Moana

  • Title: Moana
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Released: November 14, 2016
  • Runtime: 107 minutes
  • Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
  • Voices: Auli’I Cravalho (USA), Dwayne Johnson (USA), Nicole Scherzinger (USA), Rachel House (New Zealand), Temuera Morrison (New Zealand), Jemaine Clement (New Zealand), Alan Tudyk (USA)
  • Available: In theatres, DVD/Blu-Ray on February 21, 2017
  • Recommendation by: Ian Magnuson

It didn’t occur to me that Moana could be a feature for Backyard Global until I was in my seat at the cinema. As one should with any Disney movie, I went in with some serious skepticism about the potential for mass cultural appropriation. While certainly far from perfect, I must say I left impressed! If nothing else, I left with more questions about Polynesian culture than I came in - one fun fact I learned was that the word “taboo” originates from Tongan, the language of Tonga, a small Polynesian nation. At the end of the day, Moana isn’t a perfect representation of Polynesian culture but it does it much better than the likes of Mulan or Aladdin. There is some romanticism of native culture (namely their reliance on coconuts) and it perhaps reinforces some stereotypes of Polynesian men and mythology (see this Smithsonian Mag article for an in-depth review on its cultural representation), but overall I think it does portray the people in a positive light and the movie is simply a joy that the whole family can enjoy.

A new vision of a Disney princess, Moana herself.

A new vision of a Disney princess, Moana herself.

With that little disclaimer out of the way, first and foremost this film is beautiful. It’s truly an artistic masterpiece with vibrant colors, expressive animation, and effective visual comedy. Moana tells the story of an energetic young “princess” of a Polynesian tribe with a serious case of wanderlust. Moana wishes to journey across the seas to see the world beyond the barrier reef (it’s never clear if it means the Great Barrier Reef and geographically-speaking, this wouldn’t make sense) while her father, the chief, tries to convince her to stay on the island, a possible reference to the Long Pause of Polynesia migration mentioned in the Smithsonian article. She eventually sets off on an adventure after its found that her island is on the verge of an environmental disaster that began when the demigod Maui (voiced semi-convincingly by Dwayne Johnson) stole a gem from Te Fiti, a sort of Mother Nature goddess. Their adventure takes them all over the South Pacific and she encounters many challenges such as a race of coconut people (funny but one of the issues many Polynesians take issue with), and a large shiny-things-collecting crab voiced by Flight of the Phoenix’s Jemaine Clement (alongside one of his signature songs!). I won’t spoil the ending but the journey is one of personal development more than anything and is sure to be enjoyable for both parents and children! All of the main characters are voiced by actors with Polynesian ethnic backgrounds which is a nice, albeit small, touch!

Some of the cooler aspects of the film involve the representation of some lesser-known aspects of Polynesian culture, especially the incredible boats and navigational techniques that allowed them to spread across the southern Pacific archipelago. You also see something akin to the Maori war dances. While it’s not going to answer many questions about these peoples – and it should be noted they’re not a cultural monolith, we’re talking a huge geographic area from New Zealand to Hawai’I – but my hope featuring it in Backyard Global is that it might inspire you or your children to learn more about their culture! Go see Moana in theatres while you can! Otherwise, it's coming to DVD/Blu-Ray next month.

*Image credit: The Walt Disney Company