I went into this movie knowing pretty much nothing about it. I purposefully ignored the commercials, even not so subtly shutting my ears and eyes when an ad for it played before another movie I went to go see, Kubo and the Two Strings. Shocking though it may be, some of us like not having the best jokes of the movie beaten into the ground before it even opens in theaters. Some of us – little kids included – will go simply because Disney made it, and we naturally expect their movies to be well-animated, fun, and high quality. No spoiler-y advertisement needed.
I will also admit to you that I went in with cautious, but hopeful optimism, much like I am approaching the live action Beauty and the Beast remake set to open in March. It’s not that I expected or wished for poor quality; rather the opposite, in fact. But Disney is a business, and thus doesn’t always make the most sound decisions for their artistic persona. Sometimes, they obviously look at what is the most marketable.
“Hey,” they might say, “this old movie of ours did really well, so let’s copy-paste it to a slightly new format, tweak a few things, and basically let it sell itself!”
And hey, a lot of people are clamoring for more diverse Disney characters. Which is great when Disney actually puts in the time and proper investment to make a good story with good characters, but in the past has led to some awkwardness with misguided steps like Pocahontas and even Mulan to some extent. There, they take aspects of a culture that Westerners have are somewhat familiar with, and give you weird, inaccurate diet versions of real-world history and culture, which yes, come across as arrogant at best and downright mocking at worst.
And I say that as someone who genuinely loves Mulan. Who gets annoyed when people write her off, along with every other princess in the lineup before Tiana. Every Disney Princess has something good you can say about her, even if, on the surface, the only distinguishing factors appear to be hair and eye color.
What I’m trying to say is this: I want a good story and good characters first. As long as you do that, by all means; take it anywhere in the world. Show me something I haven’t seen before.
Thankfully, Moana lived up to its hype and doesn’t feel like cheap appeasement in any way. It handled another culture very respectfully, while still being fun and silly and gorgeous. I’m not sure the film surpasses Frozen, given its memorable innovations and twists, but it’s definitely up there on its level, and definitely expanding on a few ideas from its predecessor. It is always nice to see Disney’s work flourish after a particularly big hit, rather than proving it to be a fluke.
As usual, spoilers below.
I, like many people, am happy that Moana doesn’t get a romantic subplot. It is very refreshing for a Disney princess, though admittedly, that doesn’t tend to bother me unless the courting and/or characters are annoying or handled really poorly. I’m waiting to see how many people will speculate that she’s a lesbian, because of course Merida just had to be one if she wasn’t interested in dating and marriage by age 16.
I like that, for once in recent memory, a movie about tradition doesn’t paint it as the “enemy.” It almost looks that way in the beginning, what with Moana’s family and village encouraging her not to leave her island’s reef, but we soon discover that, further back than most people can remember, her ancestors were wayfinders who traveled the seas in search of new islands. This actually parallels some recent Polynesian history, believe it or not, and in the end, after being trained by a demigod and making the seas a safer place for humans, Moana re-teaches her people a useful, wonderful tradition that they had long-thought lost to them forever.
I like that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the lyrical genius behind the Broadway smash Hamilton, lends his talents to the soundtrack, even providing us with a few vocals himself. He has a very good sense of rhythm and flow, and together with Mark Mancina (who worked on the arrangements with Hans Zimmer for Disney’s The Lion King and Phil Collins for Disney’s Tarzan) and Opetaia Foa’i (a South Pacific Fusion group originally formed in New Zealand), he offers us something unique, catchy, and new altogether. I doubt “How Far I’ll Go” will be quite as explosive as “Let It Go,” but as Soprano who has attempted both songs, I have to say that the former is far more comfortable while still being compelling, beautiful, and triumphant.
It is kind of funny, though, that right after that moment in the movie, Moana kind of gets her ass handed to her. It was almost comical; like an estranged sister to those old Lilo and Stitch commercials from back in the day.
Speaking of Lilo and Stitch, Nani and Lilo will always be my first Polynesian Disney Princesses. I don’t care what anyone says; Lilo was one of the most realistic kids I’ve ever seen (not overly-annoying, but not romanticized and ridiculously smart or well-behaved), and her older sister did everything she could to love and provide for her, even though she was put in a really crummy position and didn’t have anyone to blame for it. Stitch wasn’t pretty or nice when they first got him, but Lilo loved him from the start and wanted to give him a chance to be part of their family.
They both deserve to be in the official lineup, sparkly dress or no sparkly dress.
Also, neither of these girls has the standard petite, “cinch-waisted” features that you hear so many complain about in other Disney movies.
Moana herself is cool. I like how she isn’t resistant to the path set before her; it’s more that she wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to be responsible and live up to her people’s expectations, but she also longs to explore the ocean and see more of the world than just her small island. As is typical for Disney movies, the songs and visual symbolism set that up very clearly.
I’m reminded very much of Mulan’s dilemma, but Moana isn’t nearly as physically clumsy, and she actually embraces her role (though admittedly it’s a lot less sexist and uncomfortable than Mulan’s).
I like Maui, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s demigod character, although he can get just the slightest bit cringe-worthy at some points. Admittedly, I’m not fond of “too cool for school” characters, especially when it’s obviously a pose and they’re trying so hard that they take a sharp turn back into lame territory, but the eventual reveal of his backstory, as well as some genuinely charismatic moments before that, make it fairly easy to forgive that. I like when movies show that kind of behavior as a pose or the result of some insecurity, rather than playing into it and glorifying it. And I like how during Maui’s song, Moana kind of falls for it a bit because Maui is so likable, yet obviously selfish and egotistical.
I like how everything ties together in some way or another. Moana’s father’s portion of the “Where We Are” song hints at his own past mistakes as well as his current concerns and fears (or just how they’ve naturally developed overtime). Te Fiti, the creation goddess, because a monster born of rage and vengeance but still very much tied to the earth (Te Ka is lava, and lava and water make new islands, similar to how Te Fiti would make them with her lush greens). There is a greater theme about identity, much like Frozen, where what the world calls you should not be what defines you. Your actions and choices are what define you, and in the end, Moana uses this new knowledge and the knowledge of who she is to save Te Fiti from what she has been doing since the loss of her heart.
There is very little to dislike about this movie, and most of it is just a matter of preference; nothing reprehensible or ill-intentioned. Maui’s origin story seems to have been where Disney took the most creative liberties culturally, but again, compared to past mistakes, that’s pretty commendable. That’s just kind of what Disney does with fairytales and legends (although we tend to look the other way with those based in European folklore), and if it inspires audiences to look into the culture and history out of curiosity, I can’t really call it that bad. It’s just the evolution of story-telling as it changes hands.
Moana looks and sounds amazing, and it brings us what feels like a coming-of-age Odyssey, with monsters and other strange encounters along the way. It’s a great mix of the familiar and the new, and, most importantly, it’s engaging all the way through. I like that Moana’s loving parents don’t die (which is one of my bigger personal Disney gripes), and her village-crazy-lady Grandmother Tala is adorable and utterly delightful.
The film is just so sweet and touching and heart-felt, and it doesn’t feel forced at all. Some of the humor borders on millennial-isms, but it’s still such that it can seem mostly situational, and thereby “timeless”.
The weakest song in the whole thing is probably “Shiny,” but it’s still pretty catch and fun to watch…Oh, and the fact that Moana puts her hair in a bun when bad stuff is about to go down makes me so happy. People in movies don’t seem to have their hair get in the way of things, but it really does. Mine is curly, frizzy, and on the long side, so you bet I put it up when I’m working.
I also love that her hair actually does slap her in the face a few times. For once, I will say, “Take that, Disney Princess of the Past! This is what we plebeian, real-worlders have to deal with!”
I can’t think of anything else to say. Just go see it. It’s great. Your kids will love it, if for no other reason than Moana’s adorably stupid rooster sidekick Heihei.
*None of the pictures or clips in this blog belong to me. Most belong to Disney.