The characters Maui and Moana in a scene from the movie Moana.
The characters Maui and Moana in a scene from the movie Moana. Disney

No princess in need of rescue in this movie

MOANA, the latest animated feature film from Disney, is a story about a chief in the making rather than a princess.

Its titular character Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) is the teenage daughter of the village chief who must go in search of the Polynesian demigod Maui to reverse a curse plaguing their island.

It was a concept that immediately appealed to Maori actress and comedian Rachel House, who voices Moana's grandmother Tala.

"Right from the get go I loved her character," House tells Weekend magazine.

"I loved how brave Moana was. Here is a character who doesn't care about anything romantic. She is looking out for the greater good. She could fail at any moment but that's the risk you take when you show true leadership. You might fail, but you get up again. That's the journey."

It is Moana's grandmother who encourages her to leave the safety of her island and its surrounding reef, against her father's wishes, to embrace the spirit of her ocean-faring ancestors to find Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).

The characters Grandma Tala and Moana in a scene from the movie Moana.
The characters Grandma Tala and Moana in a scene from the movie Moana. Disney

"I think she believed that it would become clear eventually when the right person would come and I imagine she sensed it in Moana straight away," House says. "But she waits for the right moment to pass on that knowledge.

"It's a great relationship that those two have and they both have strong relationships with the ocean."

The role brought back memories of House's own grandmother and that special relationship between grandchild and grandparent.

"I really was fortunate enough to have a grandmother who I really did feel absolute unconditional love from, and I felt that way about her too," she says. "There's a more direct relationship between a parent and their kids that can be quite hard, but also wonderful as well. All those feelings of love and being a child came back to me."

Moana's animators used the latest technology to bring the dazzling colours of the tropical Pacific to the big screen and the ocean is even its own character of sorts in the film.

"The water is amazing. The creatures and the colours in it are just exquisite," House says.

"The amount of work those animators have done is incredible. We walked around the studio and had a look at some of the different departments and there was such an intense focus. Just the tiniest thing that you may not even notice when you look at the screen they've been working on for months. In that respect the artistry is quite phenomenal."

House hopes the film inspires cinema-goers to look after the environment, especially our oceans.

"I had a classic Kiwi upbringing where we were at the beach all the time, those endless summers when the beaches were quiet and better looked after," she says.

"This is a reminder that we need to look after our planet a bit more. We should see ourselves as the guardians of the water."

Moana caps off a big year for House, who also starred in Kiwi director Taika Waititi's hit comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

"I got the role in Moana before I got the role for Wilderpeople, but the two films have been running concurrently in some ways," she says.

"It's been nice to do contrasting roles. That's one of the things I loved about the industry in the first place, getting to play really different characters."

Moana opens nationally on Boxing Day.

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