When shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals the heart of island goddess Te Fiti, it unleashes one too many monsters lured by its power to create and nurture life. The mishap leads to his downfall and exile on a far-flung island without his fishhook, which gives him his supernatural abilities. A thousand years will pass before the ocean chooses a young girl to oppose the will of the big blue abyss to head back to Te Fiti and return her heart. Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is next in line to inherit her father’s mandate as village chief. Life on Motunui has been peaceful and nature has been generous to the island folk, until they are faced with fishless seas and rotten coconuts. Desperate for solutions, the young chieftain decides to take their local mythology seriously. And so she ventures into the great beyond in search of the demigod, and she does find him. But a millennium without practice has made him less powerful than he used to be, and the odds of beating the lava monster Ta Ka who guards Te Fiti are no longer in their favor.
With massive income all over the world, Disney has been lord of the Box Office for quite some time now, thanks to its repertoire of well-loved movie franchises offering at least a sequel every other year. But the company has always been more associated with animation, and its role as a prevailing cultural influencer is probably a more noteworthy point of discussion than its financial achievements as a giant corporation. That it has been diversifying its ensemble of characters in the recent decade is also a great step forward, coming at a time when the clamor for such is stronger than ever.
Revisiting the Pacific since they left audiences satisfied and amused with Lilo and Stitch back in 2002, Disney now shares the story of Moana. As opposed to the stereotypical damsel in distress usually on offer, she is neither royal nor Caucasian. Instead of exquisite castles and princes on horseback, we are treated to a visual feast of white sand, clear blue beaches, and a village of Pacific Islanders who take pride in their local culture. In short, you haven’t seen a Disney “princess” like her before, that is if you don’t count Lilo as one, because she technically shared her billing in that movie with Stitch. We are not vilifying white women as role models for little girls all over the world. The argument here is that such notions of beauty imposed on a population that is predominantly brown-skinned is rather illogical, to say the least.
When you reside in a country that has no established animation industry to counter the hegemony of cartoons produced by the west, it will result in a generation of young children who will end up having unrealistic aesthetic standards that are skin-deep and not quite suitable for them. If you think this issue is petty, then you are welcome to visit any grocery or pharmacy aisle anywhere in the Philippines. You’ll be surprised how impossible it is not to find at least one whitening product on those shelves. What we need is variety. At least the next time a little girl from Honolulu or Manila goes on a Disney movie marathon, she’ll see that: Elsa is blonde and blue-eyed; Mulan is Chinese; Jasmine is middle-eastern; Tiana is African-American; Ariel is a mermaid; Moana looks just like her. And they are all pretty.
The main storyline borrows heavily from folklore unique to Polynesia. To say that Disney tossed in a lot of local flavor into this one is an understatement. In any case, it does not really alienate American audiences because they will always have a notion of Hawaii even if they haven’t been there. The sweeping depiction of the beach is such an alluring panorama. If you have visited some awesome ones in this lifetime, you’d be amazed how accurate the rendering of the colors swathing the terrain is. Even the way the surface of the ocean glitters as the sun’s rays hit the water is so vivid, it could have been the real thing!
Overall, it is a good cinematic offering for the whole family, but geared more towards the kids. It’s not that heavy on subliminal themes that an adult could relate to a la Pixar, but instead focuses on the common dilemmas that adolescents face. It’s a good thing, because in this day and age they need to look up to someone who can motivate them the right way, not like most “role models” nowadays who are just famous for being famous.