Moana – The second Disney animated feature released this year focuses on the Pacific Islands, an area they hadn’t really explored before. Okay, Lilo & Stitch took place in Hawaii, but didn’t focus on native Hawaiian lore. This movie isn’t based on any one particular story, but takes inspiration from the mythology of Maui, a trickster hero figure who appears in many Pacific legends, although the details differ from one region to another. His using a magic fishhook to pull up islands, slowing down the Sun, lifting the sky, and bringing fire to humanity are apparently all actual myths. I don’t think, however, that there’s any precedent for his stealing a stone that creates life. His goal in doing this, to give humans immortality, does somewhat reflect the story of his trying to accomplish this feat by turning into a worm and crawling through the giant body of the goddess of death, only to be crushed by the teeth in her vagina. Obviously Disney wasn’t going to use this story in its entirety. Instead, Maui loses both the stone and his magic hook, leading to a blight on the surrounding ocean and islands, and his losing his powers.
The main protagonist is the daughter of the chief of Motu Nui, which is the actual name of both a place near Easter Island and a settlement on New Zealand, but this island doesn’t appear to be quite the same as either one. Like many Disney heroines, Moana desires to escape her insular life, in this case literally insular as no one on the island is allowed to venture beyond the reef surrounding it. Moana’s grandmother, who serves as the island’s storyteller, encourages the girl to sail out to find Maui and make him return the stone, saying the ocean has chosen her. Indeed, the ocean is portrayed as an active character of sorts, helping out Moana and occasionally answering in questions in the form of a wave.
Maui, whose voice is provided by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who is of Samoan descent on his mother’s side), is largely played for comic relief, but he has his own character arc as well. While he does all of his feats for humanity, he does so for the glory and appreciation rather than because he actually cares. He’s covered in sentient tattoos based on his deeds that can interact and even argue with him, rendered in hand-drawn animation.
He also has a dark secret from his infancy, which also appeared in some versions of the Maui mythology. Much of the focus of the film is on Moana and Maui learning to work together. The girl does have two animal companions, a pig named Pua and a chicken named Heihei, but the former is way underused despite appearing in a lot of the artwork, while the latter is mostly just used for sight gags.
In a bit of the meta-humor that seems to come up in every Disney film these days, Moana and Maui argue over whether she counts as a princess. If she does count as one, she’s one of few who doesn’t have a romantic interest. Apparently an earlier draft of the script did give her one, but I’m glad they left out that part. Save the romance for the crappy direct-to-video sequel. (Do they still make those?) I’m actually not sure how old Moana is supposed to be, although I believe her official description calls her a teenager. I have noticed that, while humans in Disney’s computer-animated features no longer look as awkward as they did in the first few Pixar films, they now mostly look like really soft dolls. The scenery is very beautifully rendered, and some excellent design went into the giant beings Moana and Maui encounter: the vain crab Tamatoa, the lava demon Te Kā, and the mother goddess Te Fiti. The coconut pirates are also a clever touch.
Te Kā is the closest the film has to a main antagonist, but he doesn’t talk or bother anyone who doesn’t come near his island.
There’s a bit of a twist to the character, not entirely original but well-managed. It’s Tamatoa who gets the villain song, as well as a post-credits scene reminiscent of Hades’ audio-only bit at the end of Hercules.