Film Review: Moana
A couple of years ago, I watched every single one of their animated classics (at the time, 52 of them) in one year and wrote lengthy articles about each one. My contention throughout the project was that these are far more than just kids’ films, they’re important works of art – not all of them good, by any means – that can be subjected to as much critical interrogation and examination as any film by David Fincher or whoever else “serious” film critics are obsessing over.
If anything, wrestling with the ideas and craftsmanship of Disney’s output is more important than doing so for many others as the studio exerts a massive cultural influence over waves and waves of children. Just think, there’s a whole generation growing up with ‘Let It Go’ as their mantra. Moana is frustrating because it’s a terrific film and a whole heap more fun than Frozen, but Disney are still clinging to the ideologies that have shaped their storytelling since The Little Mermaid in 1989 and it’s getting harder to simply shrug it off.
Moana is named after the heroine of the story, the daughter of a Polynesian chief and the future ruler her island. Her eyes, however, are constantly on the horizon and she feels the sea calling to her, even though her people are forbidden from sailing beyond the reef. An ancient myth surrounding the demi-god Maui and an encroaching darkness, however, forces Moana to embrace her ancestral traditions of seafaring and wayfinding. She sets out to find Maui, right an ancient wrong and save her people.
Many of the hallmarks of Disney at their best are present and correct. The animation once again pushes the boundaries of what computer generation can achieve. Audiences now take for granted how the brains at Disney can perfectly capture the light falling on water or animate finely detailed sand, but even by their standards Moana is astonishingly beautiful. Yet any animator will tell you that their craft is not just about making something look pretty, you have to imbue every frame with character and appeal. In Moana, we are presented with lurid, neon realms of monsters (the film is rightly a PG due to it being exhilaratingly scary in places) and an ocean that is very literally a character.
The House of Mouse cottoned on to the fact that when they’re telling stories from other cultures, they should probably consult authorities on storytelling from that culture (check) and hire people from that culture for their writing and voice cast (check and check). Bringing on Taika Waititi, the writer/director behind one of the year’s best films, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to work on the screenplay was an inspired choice. Waititi brings a surreal edge to humour and even brings his old Flight of the Conchords buddy Jemaine Clement along for a hilarious, Bowie-tribute song. Moana is funnier than most of the straight comedies I’ve seen this year.
The multicultural talent behind the film also brings a richness to the storytelling that feels a world away from the trite orientalism of Mulan (a film I love nonetheless). Instead of focussing on one culture, the team were advised to blend different elements from different Polynesian peoples. Moana feels, to this inescapably English critic anyway, soaked deep in Polynesian culture and myth, making the Pacific Islands and rich and rewarding world to explore and giving it an edge over more familiar pseudo-European princess films.
Then there are the songs. Again, I have to declare pre-existing bias, as for the past 18 months I have been singularly obsessed with the original cast recording of Hamilton, a Broadway musical about the founding fathers of America. There’s a whole separate article to be written about that work of unmitigated genius, but when I found out that the man behind it, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was writing the songs for Moana, I figured the film was actually being made for me, personally. Sure enough, the songs are amazing and a good deal more musically interesting than anything in Frozen or Tangled. Miranda’s lyrically dextrous style brings fresh life to familiar tropes such as the “heroes desire” song. (Trend fans! In almost every Disney film, the second song in the film is the one where the protagonist expresses their deepest desire). The highlight of the soundtrack is ‘You’re Welcome’, in which Dwayne Johnson’s Maui extols his own virtues in an insanely catchy number that everyone will be humming in a vaguely blasphemous manner as they leave.
Combine Miranda’s superb songwriting with the aforementioned qualities, as well as a superlative voice cast and pacy, thrilling storytelling and you have a fun, exciting family film that it’s almost impossible to dislike.
Yet there is still a nagging feeling, when watching Moana, that Disney are stuck in a thematic rut. The opening song in English is a revamp of the same ideas explored in the opening number to Beauty and the Beast. There, Belle longs for more than her provincial life, here, Moana is convinced of the virtues of staying within her community and finding everything she needs where she is. This is presented as the bad option. Her song that follows, which is an absolute belter, is then about looking to the horizon and sailing off by herself to find out who she truly is. The entire film revolves around her ‘finding herself’.
Moana herself is actually a great heroine and displays many admirable qualities; part of her self-discovery comes through learning new skills and finding bravery in the face of terrifying sights. Yet my thematic beef with the film boils down to one conversation she has with Maui when they are sailing at night. She discovers that everything Maui has done was to earn the approval of others, to gain affirmation from people cheering his name. It looks like there’s going to be a genuinely powerful message behind it, then Moana literally says that perhaps Maui “was worthy of being saved.” Both characters then go on to prove their ‘worthiness’, proving that you should be yourself as long as yourself is a hero who can defeat lava monsters. Then you’ll find true satisfaction.
It would be easy for Christians to react against surface details in Moana, such as the existence of reincarnation and an arrogant demi-god who makes a lot of similar claims to Yahweh in the book of Job. Yet such details are far less likely to affect audiences than its central message. Kids are more likely to try and find salvation within themselves than convert to Polynesian polytheism. It’s frustrating because after almost two decades of being told to “be yourself” and to “look inside,” western culture still hasn’t found the magic bullet for happiness. Surely by now we’ve worked out that unrestrained independence isn’t the key to the deep dissatisfaction that troubles human hearts? We’ve tried that. To hear a message about self-actualisation once more from Disney makes it harder than ever to just dismiss the ideologies being perpetuated by the studio when they are so persistent with it.
Change your thematic tune Disney (although the music is just fine, thanks).