Moana review: Disney's newest animation is a celebration of another culture rather than a mining of it

Melissa York
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Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho

Disney films have taken a perverse turn in recent years. Its live action movies – Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, the Jungle Book – are aping its animations, while its animations are becoming increasingly realistic. Nowhere is this more apparent than Moana, the studio’s latest musical blockbuster, whose CGI characters seem more real than half the candidates on The Apprentice.

Allow yourself to be utterly transported to the Pacific Islands, depicted here in all their ocean-lapping, coconut-crammed, sun-drenched glory. Despite murmurings of cultural appropriation before its release, it’s clear Disney has done its homework and made a serious effort in regards to both cultural sensitivity and its treatment of women – it’s even made a decent stab at depicting real body shapes.

Led by a mixed race cast of largely Polynesian descent, the story follows a plucky young daughter of a chief – ‘not a princess’, we’re repeatedly told – on a mission to find the shape-shifting demi-god Maui and retrieve the creation stone he stole from Te Fiti, a Mother Earth figure, to save her island of Motunui.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda, the maestro behind Broadway phenomenon Hamilton, has created a soundtrack interwoven with Pacific harmony and drumming that’s a real grower. “How Far I’ll Go” is this year’s coming-of-age “Let it Go”, and Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clements steals the show as a jewell-encrusted crab belting Bowie-esque showstopper “Shiny”.

And the laughs keep coming, from Moana’s sidekick, an indestructible yet brainless chicken, and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s beefcake Maui, who delivers a stream of fourth wall-breakers for the grown ups.

In Moana, Disney has perfected what it started with Frozen; it’s managed to retain all that we loved – catchy show songs, innovative animation and family-friendly laughs – with a new empowering message and a narrative that feels like a celebration of another culture’s mythology, rather than a mining of it.

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