It would be going too far to say that Moana combines everything I enjoy about contemporary Disney with everything I dislike, but it’s got quite a bit of both.
On the plus side, the filmmakers have drawn inspiration from a new cultural setting — indigenous Polynesian culture and mythology — a move crucial to the success of Lilo & Stitch and The Princess and the Frog, which also featured brown-skinned heroines.
The soundtrack, featuring music from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samoan artist Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, is infectious, with a lyrical wit not seen since the days of Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin). Hamilton fans will easily recognize Miranda’s touch on numbers like You’re Welcome and Shiny.
Moana (three syllables, not two), daughter of an island chief, is a winsome heroine: Though restless and eager for more, she’s not self-centered; she takes seriously her duties as the chief’s daughter and heir apparent and wants to do right by her people.
Moana’s early scenes bristle with promise and energy. I sighed out loud as it became clear that the first-act conflict would turn on a twofer of the most exhausted, most irritating tropes in Hollywood animation: “Junior Knows Best” and “Tradition Is Wrong.”
Junior Knows Best is on my last frayed nerve. A curious, adventurous young protagonist whose blinkered, overprotective or disapproving father (it’s usually the father) insists that the hero give up on his or her dreams or vision, only to belatedly realize how very right Junior was all along, has been a familiar plot device since The Little Mermaid (which, like Moana, was written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker).
In the last decade or so, though, the trope has picked up steam. DreamWorks gave us at least three textbook cases: Happy Feet, How to Train Your Dragon and (possibly most wince-inducingly) The Croods. ParaNorman and especially The Boxtrolls, from Laika, suffer from different strains. Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells has an aggressive case, while Song of the Sea has a more benign form. I’m pretty sure some of the later Ice Age films follow this trope, though to be honest I have a hard time remembering the plots. Other examples include Alpha and Omega, Hotel Transylvania and Epic — and all of these are just some of the non-Disney cases.
Disney/Pixar cases are more nuanced than most, but the trope is alive and well in Ratatouille and Brave. This year Disney has given us two Junior Knows Best films back-to-back: a very mild case in Zootopia this spring — and now Moana, in which Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) sternly insists that his daughter, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), and, indeed all his people, never venture past the reef onto the open ocean.
“First you must learn where you are meant to be,” he tells Moana, which of course means that where Chief Tui thinks Moana doesn’t belong is exactly where she does. Tradition, in a Hollywood cartoon, exists solely for the purpose of being broken or changed by the end.
I like some of these movies — a few of them a lot. A Junior Knows Best plot isn’t fatal; it isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. It’s the prevalence of the plot device I find dispiriting. Filmmakers! Parents don’t have to be antagonists!
Moana, like Zootopia, nuances the trope in various ways. Chief Tui is likeable and good-natured, he loves and believes in his daughter, and in general they have a happy family. His overprotectiveness is given an understandable rationale, explained to Moana by her mother (Nicole Scherzinger; dare we hope the dead mother trope is waning?). And Moana’s first effort to venture into forbidden waters seems to confirm the wisdom of her father’s ban.
Eventually, though, Moana makes a discovery about her people’s past that calls the taboo into question. It seems Chief Tui’s tradition runs counter to an earlier tradition, preserved not by patriarchal authority, but by the nonconformist village crazy lady: Moana’s grandmother, who, while the tribe celebrates village life Broadway-style, can be seen off by herself communing with the ocean. And when push comes to shove, Moana’s mother helps her break the rule she explained earlier.
Like her grandmother, Moana has a link to the ocean (unsurprisingly, since her name means “sea” in Maori). In fact, it seems the ocean — which comes magically to life around Moana — has chosen her for an important task: A demigod has stolen a magical artifact from the gods, and Moana must return it. (Rick Riordan, call your office.)
Dwayne Johnson, who is part Samoan, gives a suitably larger-than-life performance as Maui, a trickster deity or demigod in Polynesian mythology. A shape-shifter and culture hero, Maui is known for such exploits as discovering fire, hauling up islands from the sea floor and roping the sun to make it go slower — as Johnson’s Maui will be happy to tell you in song.
Moana is by far Disney’s most religious film in years, and maybe ever. Maui himself might be the least of it, although he cheerfully takes credit for “the tide, the sun, the sky,” along with fire, wind, coconuts and more.
“No need to pray; it’s okay — you’re welcome,” he sings in his signature song, and while it soon becomes clear that he has ulterior motives, it seems he really did the things he boasts about. (In a delightful conceit, you don’t just hear about Maui’s exploits: You see them all over his body in tattoos, which sometimes come to life right on his skin, with one in particular acting as alter ego and conscience.)
The idea of a self-important deity grandly telling a mortal that prayers and thanks aren’t necessary while he tries to scam her out of something he needs could support an essay all on its own — though the implications may be somewhat undercut once we learn more about Maui’s past.
Then there are the story’s non-demi gods: Te Fiti, a gentle, maternal island spirit, and Te Ka, a “demon of earth and fire.” Te Fiti and Te Ka are borrowed directly from the Firebird Suite segment of Fantasia 2000, with its pagan spirits of life and destruction — though where Fantasia 2000 presents its lava monster and life-giving sprite as opposed, dualistic principles, Moana takes a more monistic approach.
I have mixed feelings about the resolution of this storyline, which involves restoring a stolen gemstone called “the heart of Te Fiti” to its rightful owner. (Note: Spoilers ahoy.)
Yes, it seems reasonable, even natural, that a lava monster would be scary and menacing, but not finally evil. Then again, they call Te Ka a “demon,” and she seems as malicious as a Balrog. It’s one thing for a frightening witch in a Hayao Miyazaki film to turn out not to be quite so menacing as she seemed; it’s another to walk up to shadow and flame as if to an old friend — not a prudent move, even on a naturalistic reading. Sympathy for the devil is another theme I’ve seen too much of (ParaNorman; Kubo and the Two Strings).
A lava monster can be either evil or dangerous; the one thing she shouldn’t be is manageable. Ironically, Te Ka is based on Pele, goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes. Why did the filmmakers turn her into a demonic antagonist? Because their imaginations are locked into good-vs.-evil storytelling — even when that’s not the story they really want to tell.
Finally, and most evocatively, there is the sea itself, which reaches out to Moana as a little girl. The sea’s interventions on Moana’s behalf are too direct and unmistakable to be anything else, yet its intentions remain somewhat mysterious. Moana believes that she has been called for a purpose, but Maui provocatively argues that the sea is crazy. Moana doesn’t want to believe this, but she reaches the point of a crisis of faith.
The sea is so directly involved as a character that it threatens the drama from Moana’s adventures, since at almost any point it could come to her aid if it chooses. “The sea doesn’t help you; you help yourself!” Maui hollers as they go into battle against a tribe of malevolent coconuts (just go with it; it’s an homage to Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke) — but in Moana’s case that’s clearly not true. The film’s treatment of the sea hovers somewhere between “capricious and mysterious” and “at the writer’s convenience”: in other words, somewhere between thought-provoking and well-done.
Then Maui and Moana dive down into the Realm of Monsters, where they meet an enormous sinister crab voiced by Jemaine Clement, whose production number is so spectacularly silly that I could almost recommend the film just for that sequence.
Look: I’d love to bracket my annoyance with the Junior Knows Best / Tradition Is Wrong tropes and just ride the waves of the South Pacific ambiance, the exuberant tunes and the charismatic vocal performances. I’d like to give the religious themes the benefit of the doubt, though the resolution bothers me no matter how I think about it. (Did I mention that the grandmother predicts that she’ll be reincarnated as a ray, and is?)
Looming over this is what threatens to become a recurring problem for contemporary Disney: They’re getting better at building worlds and creating characters one would like to spend time with than at telling well-crafted stories in those worlds.
In particular, they struggle with how to handle the villains or antagonists. This was the trouble with Zootopia, Big Hero 6 and especially Frozen, as well as Wreck-it Ralph. (In spite of this, I probably enjoyed Moana more than Frozen and Wreck-it Ralph, though not more than Zootopia and Big Hero 6.) I remain convinced that Zootopia would be a better movie with no villain at all. Moana comes closer to not having one, but not close enough.
P.S. Moana is preceded by Inner Workings, a 7-minute Inside Out-esque pseudo-educational short (more precisely, a short inspired by the likes of Disney’s 1943 Reason and Emotion) about a milquetoast office worker who goes through life avoiding risks because everything that looks like fun is potentially dangerous. In his mind, every dangerous scenario winds up with him dying and being buried — by a monastic priest murmuring over a ritual book! It’s a whimsical memento mori and a reminder to tiptoe onto the wild side just a little every once in a while.
Caveat Spectator: Animated menace and action; pagan religious themes; a few rude jokes and words. Older kids and up.