Movie Review: Moana.
Disney gives us a holiday treat with a film that is comfort food with extra heaping helpings of the things you love about “A Disney Movie™”.
While many were excited for a new culture to be represented with this film, it’s normalization of the heroic nature of its female protagonist was all the more impressive. It manages to be a familiar Disney story that feels inclusive and authentic, despite a few early hiccups. Oh and everyone sings a lot, but you probably already knew that.
Disney’s latest tale is set in Maori culture, and right off the bat we are treated to a neat little sequence setting up the world as we know it. Very much like the pottery inspired exposition we got in Hercules, Polynesian tapestries and nautical elements tell the tale of a world given life by a goddess named Te Fiti, who is currently in a state of torpor due to the meddling of the demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson). Having stolen her heart (literally), Maui unleashed destructive forces and the ensuing battle left both the Heart and Maui missing in action.
Fast forward to the island of Motunui, an idyllic land blessed with coconuts, fish, and a village of singing simpletons (they quickly revert to being normal, intelligent people, but their first song kinda paints them as tribalist bumpkins). Into this world is born Moana, the chieftain’s daughter, and an adorable toddler with a fascination with the sea.
Sneaking away from Granny’s exposition… er, story time, Moana goes down to the sea and starts bending water. She then has to go on a quest to find the last Airbender and save the world. Ooops, wrong story. The sea has taken a liking to Moana, and gifts her the heart of Te Fiti. Before she can claim the trinket, she is whisked away by her father, who scolds her in song form about how life in the village is great, don’t think about exploring the ocean, we love being simple and happy yada yada. Think “Under the Sea”, but more patronizing. As Moana grows, she becomes more and more the proper heir to the village, yet the desire to travel the ocean never leaves her.
Big Trouble in Little Motonui
Remember that whole “oh yeah, Te Fiti has no heart, impending doom” opener? Well, the curse has finally reached Motunui, and it is rotting their food and scaring away the fish. Moana suggests fishing further out past the reef, a tribal taboo, and is quickly shot down. In an act of rebellion she decides to go past the reef herself, and promptly destroys a boat and nearly gets herself and her bestie piglet killed. We then learn that the Chieftain lost his best friend doing the exact same stunt that Moana pulled, and that is why he chastises her: he sees himself in her, and is frightened where that may lead her. Granny pulls an Obi Wan to Chief Rui’s Uncle Owen, presenting Moana with her people’s history as sea-navigators bar none, as well as returning the heart of Te Fiti, which Granny had pocketed at the beach all those years ago. Grans promptly dies and becomes a force ghost. Her final words: “Leave the village, find Maui, and get him to fix the mess he made”. Thus begins our adventure.
Can you Smelllllll… What the Rock is Hookin’
(…Because he uses a magical fishhook, get it?)
And a gorgeous adventure it is, at that. I saw Moana in 3D, and it almost made me rethink all the praise I lavished on Doctor Strange for it’s use of the art. This movie might not have been born for 3D like the Sorcerer Supreme was, but Moana feels like a fish in water using the medium. We get an ocean that feels both vast and deep, action that expands all around you, and during Maui’s “You Ain’t Ever Had a Friend Like Me” style song the use of CGI, traditional animation, and stop motion paper art is blended beautifully into three dimensions.
The CGI that makes up the bulk of Moana is top notch, as is to be expected from a Disney movie. Frozen seems to be the point where Disney has managed in CGI what it had perfected in cell animation: a standardized, beautiful style that just radiates charm and happiness. In one scene Moana is whispering praise into Maui’s ear in a bid to use his ego against him. He later does the same thing to her, but this time to congratulate her. It was at that moment I knew that these characters could have sold me sand in the desert, they were that charming.
It also does for sand and water what frozen did for ice and snow, almost taunting other companies with how good they are at making animation challenges seem like child’s play. When Moana washes up on shore halfway through the movie her frizzy, sand covered hair was some of the most impressive computer animation I’ve ever seen.
That’s fine and all, but Disney movies are almost always measured by their songs. How does Moana stack up? Better than average, but I have to admit, almost every song felt like a culturally dressed up version of better songs, or at least more familiar songs. I’ve already referenced two other Disney chart toppers in relation to the music and a few days removed from watching Moana, I was chagrined how quickly the theme song “How Far I’ll Go” morphed into “Part of Your World” in my head.
The one song that blew me away was “We know the Way”, which was used to show Moana’s ancestors in all their sea-faring glory. It was powerful, but upon leaving the theater I was like “Oh yeah, they kinda already hit me in that button with The Lion King”. I’d like to comment on Jemaine Clement’s witty little ditty as the villainous Crab Monster Tomatoa, but the bass in my theater was cranked up to 11 and it made all his lines unintelligible. Bummer.
A “Princess” Movie With No Love Interest???
I DO declare!! I think I’m having a bit of the vapors. Many on the inter-webs went gaga about another non-white Princess being added to the Disney stable. I get it. The cultural references regarding the creation of the islands, Maui’s exploits (comedically represented as sentient tattoos on his body), and the Maori sailing tradition are all spot on… if my three hour dive down the Wikipedia rabbit hole was correct. It’s a welcome addition to Disney’s use of culture to repackage their stories.
What was more surprising and refreshing to me was how normal it felt that Moana was an honest to goodness heroine. Many Disney movies show women’s strength as directly related to their ability to woo, support, and talk sense into the men in their lives. Which is kinda the definition of benevolent sexism. Which kinda sucks. If we do get a woman doing masculine daring-do, they are tomboys like Princess Eilonwy or downright hiding their gender like Mulan.
Here, we get a woman being brave, intelligent, funny, and confident and it’s NO BIG DEAL. No One knocks Moana as “the chief’s little girl”, they are A-OK with her claim to rule. They don’t even have remarks about it, it’s totally normal. Maui seems more bemused at Moana’s age, rather than her gender when she presents herself as the person told by the sea to save the world. We never get “that was pretty good…(for a girl)”. The fact that this Princess doesn’t pine for a Prince is totally natural for her character. She’s got the ocean in her blood and her people in her heart, and that’s more than good enough.
Adding its Stone
In Moana’s tribe, every new chieftain places a rock on top of a stack of previous chieftain’s stones at the top of the very highest point of the island. It signifies that each new ruler makes their island that much taller, that much better. That sums up Moana pretty well. This is a Disney movie through and through, the only real wrinkle is that everyone expected Belle and they got Aladdin instead.
Every aspect of the film is just a prettier, shinier remix of trademark Disney style. It reminded me of Avengers: Age of Ultron. I came out of that film thoroughly entertained, but it was empty calories that soon faded away. When I was asked much later my favorite part of AoU, I mistakenly cited the scene where Captain America curled a helicopter, which happened in an altogether different Marvel movie. It was that homogeneous a product.
Same thing here.
I loved my time in the theater. I laughed, I smiled, and thankfully the few tears I shed were obscured by my 3D glasses. But a day later I was humming a song from The Little Mermaid and was thinking about maybe going to see Manchester By the Sea next for something a little meatier. It’s a great addition to the Disney pantheon, but Moana rarely explores new waters outside of it’s technical wizardry.