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Disney princess movies revisited: Moana


Disney's Frozen 2 is on release now in Cineworld, and we've been celebrating by recapping all the classic Disney princess movies in order of release.

This week: we're returning to the release of 2016 blockbuster Moana.

What's the story of Moana?

Amid the beautiful, sun-kissed Pacific islands of Polynesia, there persists an ancient legend about the demi-god Maui.

On the island of Motunui, the inhabitants celebrated the god Te Fiti, bringer of life to the ocean who channelled her power through her heart: a mystical ponamu stone. However, Maui, the shape-shifting master of sailing, stole the stone, only to later be attacked by volcanic demon Te Ka, who sought the ponamu for itself. In the ensuing battle, Maui lost his magical fish hook and the gem disappeared beneath the waves.

Millenia pass, and we alight on chieftain's daughter Moana, who is chosen by the ocean to return the heart to Te Fiti. However, her mother and father interrupt the process, seeking instead to make Moana the tribal chief. As their daughter grows up, the anxious parents attempt to keep her away from the ocean. 

When Moana reaches the age of 16, she's informed by her wise grandmother that their people used to be voyagers, but Maui's theft of Te Fiti's heart made the ocean an unsafe place. Vowing to restore both the honour of her people and the heart to its rightful place, tenacious Moana takes to the sea. And when she eventually teams up with Maui himself, the stage is set for an epic adventure...

How did Moana get made?

In 2013, Frozen revitalised the concept of the Disney princess movie, dispensing with the notion of happily ever after as dictated by romance. Instead, Frozen cemented the bond between siblings Anna and Elsa, boldly suggesting that familial affection outweighs another fatuous love affair between a winsome princess and her handsome prince.

Indeed, Frozen goes one further by having the apparent love interest, Hans, become the psychotic villain in the final third – it's the connection between Anna and the magical Elsa that ultimately helps defeat him, restoring peace to the kingdom of Arendelle in the process.

This subtle but significant storytelling shift proved hugely successful: Frozen became the most successful Disney animation of all time with grosses of $1.27 billion worldwide. Empowering anthem 'Let It Go' became one of the most-played videos on YouTube, further asserting the film's status as a fairy tale that ditched tired conventions while also retaining that quintessential Disney magic.

It's therefore little surprise that the charming Moana continues in this vein, championing an independent, forward-thinking heroine and removing the need for a one-dimensional love interest. The love this time is reflected in the endearing friendship between chieftain's daughter Moana and her demi-god BFF Maui, a classic chalk and cheese duo that invests the scenario with plenty of humour.

Disney's decision to hire directors Ron Clements and John Musker for Moana proved hugely beneficial. The two were veterans of the hand-drawn Disney renaissance period, having brought their flair for lively colours and visual invention to Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The latter two movies are considered two of the defining animations of their period, and their hallmarks are on display in Moana, although this time they were working in the realm of CGI animation.

The film began life in 2011, when Musker began reading up on Polynesian mythology after his and Clements' planned adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Mort fell through. Creative chief of Disney Animation John Lasseter (best known as the director of Pixar's Toy Story) suggested the two embark on research trips to the Pacific, and they travelled to Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti to meet the people of the South Pacific Ocean and learn about their culture.

Interestingly, the filmmakers had originally intended to base the story around Maui. But in the course of their research, they decided to instead base it around a tribal daughter character, one who would eventually emerge as Moana. Clements and Musker fused their research of Polynesian tribes with the nautical history of the region – it transpired that Polynesian people had indeed abruptly stopped making seafaring voyages around 3,000 years ago. This informed both the context and the mythological sweep of the movie.

As with all Disney movies, the project and characters went through numerous changes in the early stages of production. Maui was originally conceived as bald, but this was rejected by the newly formed Oceanic Story Trust, a team of creative consultants established by Clements and Musker themselves. At the 2015 Disney Expo, the title was initially proposed as Waialiki, although this was eventually changed to Moana.

New Zealand quirk-meister Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok; What We Do in the Shadows) was originally drafted to write the script, but bowed out in 2012 following the birth of his first child. Initially, Moana was proposed as the sole daughter amid a brood of several brothers, but the emphasis was changed over the course of subsequent drafts, allowing the character's quest for identity to come to the forefront. 

Screenwriter Pamela Ribon devised the character of Moana's wise old grandmother, eventually voiced by actor Rachel House, a scene-stealing presence from Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Various other concepts were altered or dropped altogether throughout production, including an idea whereby Moana saves her father, who had been lost at sea.

Te Kā was referred to in early drafts of the film as Te Pō, a reference to the Māori goddess Hine-nui-te-pō, who was originally the life-giving goddess Hine-tītama, but became the goddess of death upon discovering that her husband the god Tāne was also her father. Māui set out to defeat her in order to bring immortality to humans, but failed and was himself killed.

Although Zootropolis screenwriter Jared Bush eventually took the sole screenplay credit, Hawaiian-born writers Aaron and Jordan Kandell were the ones who brought authority to the central relationship between Moana and Maui.

The script continued to organically develop even when production began in 2015. For instance, Clements and Musker said the attack of the Kakamora, small, coconut-bodied creatures, was directly inspired by 2015 blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. The directors of Disney's earlier hit Big Hero 6, Don Hall and Chris Williams, were also drafted in to help smooth over story problems.

After an extensive search, 14-year-old Auli'i Cravalho was selected as the voice of Moana. Similar to the process of Jeremy Irons/Scar with 1994's The Lion King, the actor's facial features were eventually incorporated into the character's design. The video showing the moment where Cravalho won the part is tremendously endearing – like the African-American Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, both the character of Moana and the accompanying actor helped diversify the notion of the Disney princess.

Of course, as a film, Moana demonstrates a pleasing sense of self-awareness. The title character tells Maui that she is assuredly not a princess and doesn't want to be considered as such. What we're therefore faced with is a human being, not an archetype, a clear sign of how Disney princess movies have rolled with the times to reflect contemporary attitudes towards gender.

This sense of regional authenticity continued with the casting of Dwayne Johnson. Like Cravalho, the brawny A-lister is also of Polynesian extraction, making him the perfect choice to voice Maui. Johnson later revealed that Maui was inspired by his grandfather, Peter Maivia, who, interestingly, fought Sean Connery in 1967 Bond movie You Only Live Twice.

The film stayed loyal to its Polynesian roots in the casting of the supporting actors. Former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger (Sina, Moana's mother) is of Native Hawaiian heritage. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Rachel House (Tala, Moana's grandmother), Temuera Morrison (Tui, Moana's father) and Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa) are all of Māori heritage. No longer were Disney movies play-acting when it came to stereotypes: Moana asserted itself as a 21st century family adventure by casting the appropriate actors in the appropriate roles without it ever feeling tokenistic or patronising.

Directors Clements and Musker sought to make Moana their first-ever wholly CGI movie. Although their earlier Treasure Planet, an unfortunate box office disaster, had incorporated traces of visual effects into hand-drawn animation, Moana would fully take advantage of the medium. That said, Maui's memorably shape-shifting tattoos are hand-drawn, courtesy of veteran Aladdin animator Eric Goldberg.

"The story’s visual elements like the ocean benefited more from CG instead of a two-dimensional technique," Musker told Honolulu Magazine. "We’re really hoping the audience can see how rich the CG is in the film."


What songs are on the Moana soundtrack?

The Moana soundtrack was a joint effort: the songs were composed by Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with Speed composer Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa'i, member of the 'South Pacific Fusion' group Te Vaka. Meanwhile, the score itself was composed by Mancina.

It proved to be a diverse line-up that fused indigenous sounds with the kind of crowd-pleasing Disney showtunes familiar from the studio's 1990s renaissance period. Like all aspects of Moana, there was a clear synergy between the old and the new, progressive attitudes welded to a reliable Disney template.

As with Frozen, the title character's go-getting attitude and tenacity is cemented by a power anthem. In this case, Moana sings 'How Far I'll Go' in a defiant statement of individuality, as she seeks to break free from her limited island lifestyle and restore the glory of her people. If the song doesn't quite attain the impact of the earlier 'Let It Go', it's not far behind.

Arguably even more memorable is the jaunty 'You're Welcome', performed with gusto by Johnson as Maui. The tune cements the character's initial sense of cockiness, the demi-god who is compelled to assert his magical particulars to a seemingly lowly island dweller, although, as we know, Moana's sense of resourcefulness eventually teaches Maui a great deal about himself. It's refreshing to have a Disney movie in which there's no romantic ballad between the male and female characters – there's never a suggestion they can become love interests; instead, they begin as frenemies, and end as staunch allies.

As with so many Disney movies, the side characters often steal the show. In this instance, Taika Waititi's regular collaborator Jemaine Clement channels his inner David Bowie for 'Shiny', in which he voices avaricious crab Tamatoa.

As for Mark Mancina, he was established by this point as a Disney veteran, having scored the two Planes movies, Tarzan and Brother Bear. He brings a beautifully delicate and ethnically sensitive feel to the underscore, which engages our emotions beyond the air-punching triumph of the songs.

Given Mancina also contributed to the songs, there's a pleasing sense of consistency between those and the underscore melody. Noted soundtrack journalist Christian Clemmensen of Filmtracks notes: "The more magical and melodic portions of Mancina's music are very attractive... and most of these moments lean on melodies from the songs.

"Mancina does offer his own primary theme of sorts, and he contributed it as counterpoint to the 'Know Who You Are' song. You hear this theme on its own in lovely crescendos at the ends of "The Ocean Chose You" and 'Tala's Deathbed' before experiencing a momentous exclamation of victory at 0:40 into "Toe Feiloa'i."

How successful was Moana?

Released in December 2016, Moana was another triumph in the resurgent Disney princess sub-genre. Predecessor Frozen had grossed an enormous $1.27 billion worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing Disney animation to date and throwing down a formidable gauntlet to Moana.

The movie, however, steered these choppy waters with ease, soaring off the back of its empowering heroine, lush visuals and memorable soundtrack. Musker and Clements' steady hand on the tiller eventually guided Moana to a global gross of $690 million – not quite Frozen, but still in the upper echelons of the most successful Disney movies.

The critics were just as enthusiastic about the movie as audiences were. The film currently stands at an impressive 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and reviews at the time were fulsome. The response from The Hollywood Reporter's Michael Rechtshaffen was magnanimous: "Contemporary Disney at its finest - a vibrantly rendered adventure that combines state-of-the-art CG animation with traditional storytelling and colourful characters, all enlivened by a terrific voice cast".

Empire magazine was similarly generous of spirit: "A crowd-pleasing oceanic musical with big tunes and beguiling characters, Moana is likely to thwack a big smile on your face. And did we mention the idiotic chicken?"

The film's box office and critical success was matched with two nominations at the Oscars, for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song (for 'How Far I'll Go'). However, the movie lost out to Disney's very own Zootropolis and 'City of Stars' from La La Land, respectively. 

Oscars, however, be damned – Moana has continued to endure as one of the most popular Disney films of recent years. The film's refusal to patronise its central female character, instead favouring an even-handed attitude, has cemented the movie as a progressive family classic, one that further advances the Disney princess archetype into the 21st century. You're welcome!

When is Frozen 2 released in the UK?

Frozen 2 is on release now in Cineworld, so check out the trailer and tweet us your favourite Disney princess movies @Cineworld.