Moana

 photo moana_ver4_zpshihqyz6h.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIf there’s an archetype that Disney is most known for, it’s the princess. Snow White, Cinderella Sleeping Beauty – these are the classics. In recent years we’ve added ones from Tangled and Frozen. The studio’s latest offering is Moana (voiced by Hawaiian teen Auli’i Cravalho). Ok so she’s actually the daughter of her tribe’s Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), not royalty as she herself points out for us, but she fits the princess mythology. The paradigm has always been loosely defined, but if the movie is a success, then she’s adopted into the tradition. If there’s any justice, this movie deserves to be a huge hit.

Moana is all about a quest. She hails from the fictional island of Motunui. Although that is indeed the name for a settlement in New Zealand, the location is set on an unspecified archipelago. This could be also Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii or any peninsula in the South Pacific. Moana is intrigued by the sea. However, her love for the oceans is sternly repressed by her father. The world is a dangerous and scary place he tells her. Those feelings are rooted in his own personal trauma. Yet we’ll discover, Moana’s longing has a basis in her cultural destiny. Her island is slowing declining. Crops are dying, coconuts are rotting, and fish are becoming scarce. According to legend, there’s a reason for this. Many years earlier, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. This was a glowing green, jade-like stone. The absence of Te Fiti’s heart will continue to bring hardship. So, inspired by her Grandma Tala (Rachel House) Moana sets out on a journey to find the ancient gem and restore her world to its original magnificence.

The leading ladies of Disney have undergone a personality overhaul over the past three decades beginning with Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The classic princesses have been criticized for being too simplistically innocent. On the other hand, the modern ones can be a bit self-centered in their rebellion against a repressive society. I know it’s technically Pixar (owned by Disney) but Merida from Brave actually turned her mother into a bear. She was downright mean. Yes, Moana rebels in predictable fashion too, but she feels a little different. For the first time in quite a while, she exudes more humility than I have seen from Disney’s recent heroines. Simply put, she is a nicer person. Additionally, she has no love interest. It’s lamentable that we’re at a point where even a minor deviation from the rigid princess blueprint is considered revolutionary but here we are. Moana is refreshingly different.

You’ve got a spunky, can-do explorer at the center of a bright shiny musical with a positive message. Moana may be set between 2000 and 3000 years ago, but she’s still a contemporary heroine tailor made for a 2016 audience. Whether it’s Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esméralda, Mulan or Tiana, Disney has included more ethnically diverse protagonists for quite some time now. This time the formula is gently tweaked to include a Polynesian setting and people. Moana isn’t tall and stick thin but she’s still attractive. Certainly an athletic type. Disney has yet to really get subversive and create a leading lady that doesn’t look like she could model. Legendary demigod Maui has a wildly expressive face and a giant physical presence when compared to Moana. The juxtaposition of her tiny physique with his massive frame is amusing. The art direction draws heavily from Samoan culture incorporating the architecture, statues, even body art. The adult characters sport tattoos. Maui even interacts with a figure on himself that pantomimes advice like his sidekick.

Moana finds Disney working very much within their wheelhouse. The production is immeasurably enhanced by songs written by Opetaia Foa’i of the New Zealand group Te Vaka, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway’s Hamilton fame, and American composer Mark Mancina (Disney’s Tarzan), who also composes the musical score. Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” is the obvious bid for a hit single in the vein of “Let It Go” from Frozen. However, there are many others that stand out. The Rock sings “You’re Welcome” and it’s instantly catchy.  The tribal chant “We Know the Way”, partially sung in Tokelauan, is great too. Oh and “Shiny” sung by a villainous coconut crab named Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement) is completely unexpected – like early 70s era David Bowie. The music is great. I think the sheer number of memorable songs is higher than any of their animated features since perhaps the 90s.

Young girl wants to realize her destiny by breaking free from the strict confines of her society. We’ve seen the hero’s journey story before. It gently recycles elements of The Little Mermaid, Mulan and half a dozen other of their own creations. Even the way the chronicle presents fluctuating happy and sad events won’t surprise anyone over the age of 5. Moana and Maui’s rocky relationship are highlighted by ups and downs that I would warmly describe as haphazardly predicable . Yet the production is carried out in such a proficient manner that the appropriation is still incredibly entertaining. The soundtrack is filled with one transcendent song after another. The animation is vibrant and appealing. The evocation of paradise is stunningly beautiful. Even the water is a translucent character that protects our young hero. Her pets, a pig (Puanani Cravalho) and a rooster (Alan Tudyk), each provide wonderful comic relief. Moana happily employs an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ mentality that includes the sum total of what makes a Disney film entertaining.  You want colorful animation, music, sidekicks, a comic villain, humor, a moral?  Well how about an army cuddly cute coconut warriors?  You get all that and more and it’s skillfully presented in an artistically appealing way.

11-22-16

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10 Responses to “Moana”

  1. smilingldsgirl Says:

    Oh my gosh! You are so right about this film! I will always defend the princesses of old as being a little better than they are often brushed aside as but Moana is such a nice person! I completely agree with you. Just this whole movie felt positive and left me feeling so happy. I loved pretty much everything about it. And I’m so excited for little girls to add Moana to their Disney princess fandom. You are right about her looking more athletic and normal and as a fellow curly haired girl I loved she had curly hair (a first of the princesses aside from Merida). My only defense of Merida is she didn’t know she was changing her Mother into a bear. She was just told she would be changing her fate. But anyway Moana is a million times better than Merida! I loved the music and the colors and the comedy. That chicken was hilarious. I can’t wait to see it again!

    • Your point about Merida is technically correct, but her motives were not good. I found her a very selfish person and possibly my least favorite lead character in an animated film ever.

      Moana is wonderful, as an individual and as a whole film. The more I think about this movie, the more I love it. It harks back to The Little Mermaid for me. That’s always been an example of the film where Disney got everything right. It re-invigorated the studio into a new era. The Little Mermaid soundtrack was was one the very best they had ever done. I think, song for song, this is the best collection of songs since that film. There are several that I find myself singing as opposed to just one.

      Yes I will be seeing this again!

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        You are speaking my language with Little Mermaid praise! It’s one of my favorite movies! I also agree more I think about Moana more I love it.

  2. “The evocation of paradise is stunningly beautiful.” — this is what I was first attracted to about this, and quite frankly the only thing really. Okay, other than Dwayne Johnson. Dude can do no wrong.

    But this movie sounds like it has quite a bit more going on. I’m sold!

  3. I really loved this movie. Very well done. Catchy songs, great characters. This will be a well deserved huge hit. 4 stars

    • I was predicting $300 million but it doesn’t appear that it will. Still a huge hit, yes, but when Universal’s The Secret Life of Pets made almost $370 million, the possibilities were raised for this Disney film – a great one at that.

  4. I agree about Moana being very much in Disney’s wheelhouse and about it sticking to their successful archetypes. You’re also right that Moana shows more humility than other recent Disney heroines. I found her to be refreshingly different too. I liked that her dad’s reason for keeping her wasn’t just the standard trying to keep her safe or stuck in her gender role. He tried leaving the island too and lost his best friend in the process, which I think is a pretty darn good reason for wanting her to stay on their island. I loved Maui was a character for his design, for his expressive face (like you mention), and his interactive tattoos. I also dug the silly rooster and how the ocean itself became a sassy character. Unlike you, I wasn’t a big a fan of the music. Some of the songs were really catchy like “How Far I’ll Go” and “You’re Welcome,” while others I thought were total misses like “Shiny.” Overall, I found Moana delightful and wished it got more attention last year.

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