Movies, Pop Culture

How “Moana” saved the world and revamped Disney Princesses for good

Esteemed directors Musker and Clements have finally cracked the modern heroine code by sticking to a pure story and laying off the hacky princess jokes.

It seems like Disney has finally figured out how to make a modern Disney heroine. “Moana” is a joyful triumph that is all the better for sticking to formula. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Hercules,” “Treasure Planet,” and “The Princess and the Frog”) leave off the bells and whistles and what we’re left with is a lovely gem of a movie that will leave the feminist blogosphere with little to complain about.

Like a lot of women born in the 90’s, my “Disney” playlist on Spotify is probably the one I listen to the most. I’ve been excited for “Moana” to come out since I heard about it going into preproduction years ago, and Musker and Clements are two of my favorite directors (“The Great Mouse Detective” is criminally underrated) so I was at about a ten on the excitement scale. I went to see it with some friends, and I warned them beforehand that I would be “crying the entire time.” I’ve known the lyrics to “How Far I’ll Go” since the Alessia Cara version was released a month ago.

My neighbors probably know them too, because I’ve been singing it nonstop.

Still, I’m usually the first person to keep my personal enjoyment and my critical eye separate. You can’t love CGI dinosaurs as much as I do and mix up what you like to watch versus what deserves critical praise. Not even music from Lin Manuel Miranda, whose very giggle could cure cancer if only we could bottle it, could hide a weak plot or lazy characterization from a good critic.

Luckily, “Moana” will ask you to make no such compromises. It’s a good, clean, adventure story that goes along more or less the way you’d expect it to while still hiding a few narrative tricks up its sleeve. And I do mean that in the best way possible.

To say “Moana” is predictable or archetypal is not to say it’s bad. As A.O. Scott notes in his review, tropes and archetypes aren’t inherently hacky when used well, and they are certainly used well here. There are a couple snarky nods towards the usual Disney oeuvre (Maui remarks to Moana that being a young girl on a mission with an animal sidekick makes her a princess by default) but Musker and Clements left out the heavy handed wink-winkiness of “Enchanted” and “Frozen,” and thank God for that.

We need more stories where women aren’t defined by the need to find a male partner, but if I never see another “hot take” arguing that “Beauty and the Beast” is somehow about Stockholm Syndrome (remember how he lets her go and she leaves, and how the whole point of the movie was that she didn’t love him until he started being nice?) it’ll be too soon. What’s left is a rock-solid story-line instead of unnecessary twists or labored character arcs.

I was also grateful to see a lack of angst over whether a girl could be chief of her tribe, or whether she could sail. There is a time and a place for characters who must overcome gendered expectations, but it was pleasant to see a movie that just lets its heroine get on with her adventure without making her jump through narrative hoops. If anything, “Moana” could be read as a story about women who see the problems around them, many of them created by men, and just get on with fixing them. I love that Moana’s people just believe in her, both as their future chief and their savior.

Moana herself (Auli’i Cravalho) is neatly set up as a young woman determined to save her people, but torn between her sense of duty and her thirst for adventure, and Ms. Cravalho’s performane may lack the polish and spark of the usual celebrities but she makes up for it in spades with spunkiness, a honey-sweet singing voice, and the refreshing change of an actual teenager playing a teenage character.

Dwayne Johnson is downright delightful as the mischievous Maui, with an excellent singing voice that you won’t see coming. His performance is so much fun that I let slide a Twitter joke that would otherwise have sent my eyes rolling out of my head. What can we do to keep him doing voice work? Is there a petition we can sign? A sacrifice we can make?

The animation style is gorgeous and inventive, particularly during Maui’s “You’re Welcome.” Polynesian mythology is celebrated in both the lush visuals and wonderful music. While “How Far I’ll Go” is going to get the most attention, “We Know the Way” will give you chills and “Where You Are” has grown on me considerably. A sequence with a monstrous crab called “Tamatoa” is the part of the plot where the seams show most, but a surprise appearance by the never not-funny Jemaine Clement is enough to keep it from dragging.

I don’t think that “Beauty and the Beast” has been overtaken as Disney’s standout achievement, but I’m having a hard time coming up with anything else that has stood up to the hype so well. “Moana” is proof that sometimes when you plug the right pieces into the right places you get a sturdy framework for magic.