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Film Review: Moana

Moana (2016; Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker)

Moana is an astonishingly gorgeous animated film that achieves a fine balance between the predominant themes and identity politics (and the related demographic marketing targets thereof) of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ recent feature releases and the mythology and cultural traditions of indigenous Polynesian peoples. It’s a more compelling text when leaning towards the latter, though in either case it’s frequently entertaining on all observable levels. Moana’s reliance on the conventions of its form, however, has a tendency to dampen down its magic and direct its grand voyage of adventure onto a path more proscribed and predictable.

But let’s talk about the beauty first. Set in and around a mythic pre-European-contact mid-Pacific Ocean archipelago, Moana’s visual tapestry will be familiar to any visitor to the Hawaiian islands: the rich colour palette of vibrant greens in foliage and the deep, varied blues of the endless Pacific, the vivacious rainbow of underwater coral ecosystems, the clean black of volcanic rock and the primal magma glow of eruptions, the rounded yet dramatic topographical slopes of the islands and their sheltering, fertile valleys. Moana bursts with these wonders for the eye and many more besides: wayfaring ocean-bound camakau boats cutting silkily through the waves, exquisite illustrations of mythical monsters and heroic exploits on tapa and tattooed skin, a towering volcanic fire-demon named Te Ka who figures prominently in the grand climax.

That climax is the culmination of the cross-ocean quest of the titular heroine (voiced with spunk and honesty by Hawaiian native Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) of the fictional isle of Montunui. Forbidden by her father to venture beyond the island’s barrier reef due to the dangers of the open waters, Moana’s adventurous nature, abetted by her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) and supported by the discovery of her tribe’s ocean-going fleet hidden in a cave, encourages her to defy him. Tui’s strict boundary-setting and Moana’s strong-willed transgressions are, of course, clear metaphors for the restrictions of patriarchal fatherhood (which here are very much well-meaning and protective, if misguided, but can also represent a more troubling and even violent dominion in other cases) and for teenaged girls growing to womanhood and striking out independently into an unforgiving world. When a mysterious wasting sickness threatens Montunui’s crops and fishing stock, however, Moana’s defiance gains the urgency of necessity.

On the basis of Tala’s spun tales, Moana becomes convinced that the only way to cure the shadowy phage is to seek out the great mythic trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and have him return the greenstone heart which he stole from the benevolent island goddess Te Fiti, which will end Te Ka’s fire-spewing darkness and restore Montunui to fertility. Although Moana has evidently been chosen by the ocean itself (anthropomorphized as gesturing water swells at once reminiscent of the ocean-floor being in The Abyss and Aladdin’s magic carpet) for this quest, she doesn’t really know how to sail or navigate on the ocean. Accompanied by only a decidedly developmentally-delayed rooster named Heihei (“voiced” by Disney Animation regular Alan Tudyk and basically the best part of the movie), Moana survives a storm at sea and is washed up on a small island where she finds Maui.

Of course, the mismatched duo become reluctant allies and eventually fond and respectful friends through their ocean adventures (though nothing romantic develops, hearteningly). Of course, the selfish, glory-hungry Maui learns the value of friendship and humility, while Moana is indoctrinated by the demigod into the wondrous wayfinding navigational methods that her stationary people had forgotten. Moana is a young woman with integrity and agency, and screenwriter Jared Bush (the sole credited writer out of many who worked on the script, beginning with half-Maori New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi) smartly resolves the film’s central conflict not through the application of force but via empathetic fellow-feeling between female characters (much like recent Disney megahit Frozen did). Moana firmly rejects the arrogantly hypermasculine Maui’s attempt to label her a princess, a pejorative often levelled at prior central female characters in Disney films: she’s about action, about seizing her destiny, not waiting in a tower for it to come for her.

In the course of their voyage, Moana and Maui face a pair of memorably bizarre episodic obstacles common to animated features that, when described with sober distance, would seem to resemble nothing more or less than Surrealist art. First comes a run-in with restless-native sentient coconut pirates called the Kakamora, whose splintery, Rube Goldberg device ships and marauding nature are intentional homages to Mad Max: Fury Road. After they escape the Kakamora, Maui convinces Moana to help him retrieve the magical fishhook which grants him his shapeshifting powers. This leads to a desultory sequence in Lalotai, the Realm of Monsters, wherein they confront the fishhook’s keeper, Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a gigantic crab with a treasure-encrusted carapace, bioluminescent linings, British teeth, and a glam-ish singing style heavily reminiscent of David Bowie. The Kakamora sequence has little bearing on the story and the Lalotai scene only a bit, but these moments in Moana are precisely what continues to recommend big-budget animated features over their live-action counterparts, in most cases: they are crafted with much greater care and imagination, and are often full of totally weird shit.

Clement’s resurrection of his Bowie impersonation from Flight of the Conchords reminds me, belatedly, that Moana is a semi-musical as well. Perhaps there should be more said about that, but the English-language songs – by Hamilton composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hottest item anywhere near the Broadway musical genre for a generation – don’t rise much beyond standard sub-Broadway fare. Apart from a mild hip-hop-esque verse in Maui’s brash chest-beating tune (“You’re Welcome”), Miranda’s work here is pretty paint-by-the-numbers stuff, melodically and lyrically; there’s even a shameless, big-ballad “Let It Go” retread, “How Far I’ll Go”. I liked Opetaia Foa’i’s Samoan-language songs and their indigenous rhythms a little more, but can admit that none of it is really within the sphere of my interests (or tolerance) and that I therefore can’t write authoritatively about it.

What is my style and what I do often try to write authoritatively about is the political subtext of purportedly child-targeted animated films. Moana, however, slips through my fingers like sand at the beach in this regard. This might strike my regular readers as surprising, considering my past exploits in this vein, finding echoes of Thomas Hobbes and the War on Terror in a video-game-focused feature, delving into the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy evident in a stop-motion horror homage, and considering the implications of racial profiling in a city of animals. I suppose one could locate in Montunui’s harvest-threatening blight faint echoes of the epochal, culture-shaking colonialism of European exploration and expansion into Polynesia and perhaps even the potentially catastrophic developments related to climate change. But that would be a stretch even for this critic, with his recurring tendency for interpretive stretches.

Moana is not an unpolitical film. Its heroine’s willful strength and trailblazing courage buttresses the contemporary pop-feminism of Disney’s alt-princess figures, often couched as a recent thematic/marketing phenomenon for the studio but really discernable as far back as Mulan at least. Its story and visual motifs are drawn from Polynesian mythological narrative traditions, and there’s a deep respect and even reverence displayed for the seafaring culture of these remarkable indigenous peoples that Disney, despite its best intentions, has not always been able to muster. Politically woke as it may be, however, Moana can tend to be telegraphed in storytelling and thematic terms. It’s enjoyable but rarely delightful or exciting. Beautiful in visual terms, Moana is generally just fine otherwise. Compared to the Polynesian wayfinders that it celebrates, it will only go so far.

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