Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements
Writers: Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, and Jordan Kandell
Composers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina
Starring: Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Genre: Action/Adventure, Animation
I discovered the existence of Moana as a Disney film by happenstance. Passing by the shelves just beyond the cash registers before the main portion of a Toys”R”Us, my children and I spot merchandise with boxes sporting hues of azure and celadon surrounding a brown-skinned teenaged girl and her heavily-tattooed, hulk-built companion, characters never before seen. Who is she? Is that her dad? Is that a Disney logo? At once I told my children that we would see the eventual film during its opening weekend, and that time has arrived.
Violence: An animated tattoo decapitates a tattoo of a foe. Later in the film, the actual characters that these tattoos are based upon fight; one made of igneous rock and magma gets their limbs severed, with magma flowing to simulate blood before the limbs regenerate.
Language: In one scene, Moana says “You son of a—” and is cut off by a camera panning from her to the other side of a wall, leaving onlookers to punctuate that sentence themselves.
Sexuality: Moana is alarmingly sterile unless one finds bare-chested men and women’s midriffs exposed as cause for concern. However, the love interest in the preceding short, “Inner Workings” is notably curvy, though that could be attributed the art team’s efforts to differentiate her from the staid and symmetrical lead.
Drug/Alcohol: None, though Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson consumed tequila in real life to prepare his singing voice.
Spiritual: Moana begins with the village’s lorekeeper reciting to a group of children a Polynesian tale concerning all creation, including the goddess Te Fiti and the folkloric demigod, Maui. Thus, the film is rife with more mysticism than magic, though Maui himself can shapeshift like Zeus in western mythology. There is zero negotiation around the pagan overtones of the film; Moana is not set in fictional Neverland or Fantasia where the events that unfold can be dismissed as fictional because practitioners of these beliefs still exist in real life. Those who are wary of such subject matter should be prepared to embrace, discuss, or rebuke (which means the film entirely) accordingly.
Moana begins with Gramma Tala (Rachel House) reciting to a group of children including a toddler Moana (Louise Bush) the story of their people. When the goddess Te Fiti finishes all creation, she slumbers, turning into a lush, mountainous island. Humanity calls upon the shapeshifting demigod Maui to retrieve what some say is the key to great power such as that of creating life, the goddess’s heart in the form of a pounamu stone, from the island. With his magical fishook granted to him by the gods, he is successful in finding it, and much like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the artifact’s removal immediately results in calamity, with the island’s plentiful plant life becoming devoured by darkness and death. Maui escapes, only to be thwarted by the volcanic demon Te Ka, who strikes him so hard that he loses both the goddess’s heart and also his fish hook that allows him to shapeshift. Both are lost at sea for a millennium.
After this background story, toddler Moana approaches the island’s coast after protecting one of Squirt’s children (Easter egg!) from predators by escorting it to water. The sea then beckons her to step into it like Moses and the Red Sea, and it eventually takes the form of a morphling, playing with and gifting her with a strangely familiar pounamu stone for some dramatic irony. Her father, Tui (Temuera Morrison) interrupts the ritual, admonishing her for being near the water and forbidding her to ever travel beyond the reef surrounding the island, queuing the song “Where You Are” to hammer the point home that that is precisely what the island is—home—and as Moana ages mid-tune into a teenager (Auli’i Cravalho), she is expected as the chieftain’s heir to learn the ways of her people so that she can lead them properly.
But the sea still calls her, and news of dead, dried coconuts and no fish leaves the village in a panic as Moana, after being rudely rejected by the sea in her first attempt to go beyond the reef and shown he true story of her people by Gramma Tala, once again pleads her case to leave the island. Angered, Tui storms off to make a permanent solution to Moana’s wandering when Tala falls gravely ill. In her last moments, she gifts Moana with the pounamu stone the sea granted her during infancy, and the youth capitalizes on the diversion of her terminal elder to use a boat that she seemed destined to find to escape beyond the reef in search of Maui, who must be found so that he can set right where he went wrong by defeating Te ka and restoring Te Fiti’s heart to cease the decay of all creation.
One will be hard pressed to find a more assertive advocate than I on the topic of enriching western epistemology with the cultural capital from external, marginalized sources. Thus I was enchanted from the opening scenes featuring tapestries illustrating the monsters that haunt the sea post-Maui’s blunder as a deterrent for exploration, Tala’s mimicry of the coast’s waves through dance as she is encircled by stingrays on the shore, and tattoo-saturated Maui who earns a new one with every epic feat. I anticipated that this enchantment would eventually dissipate, but unlike Elsa’s eternal winter in Frozen, it never does.
If I were trying to be petty, I would question the placement of the failed initial voyage and the lack of enemy encounters on the sea, especially given that the power of Te Fiti’s heart is supposed to attract evil. One chance encounter with pirates seems inadequate.
Nevertheless, one can observe that Disney has learned from the mistakes made with The Princess in the Frog. Instead of gimping the lead and surrounding her with personified animals, Moana succeeds by keeping things tangibly human. Moana’s parents are loving yet understandably paralyzed by their history, compelling their daughter to overcome it as the She demonstrates a strong feeling of destiny, of calling throughout the film, gaining strength as a tidal wave approaches the shore. Native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho absolutely nails her debut, and the fact that she was the last to audition for the role is encouraging for those interested in pursuing their very real dreams. Her performance of “How Far I’ll Go” is excellent for an amateur now turned professional, but not as shocking as Dwayne Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” which left my jaw ajar at the man’s many talents. His performance as Maui nearly steals the film in ways similar to Robin Williams’ legendary Genie in Aladdin, as Maui ‘s interactions with Moana teaches him to cope with the limits of his power, and thus his humanity, in his emergence beyond that of a tragic hero.
The infusion of animal sidekicks compliment serves the cast without annoyance. While the adorable pig, Pua, is unfortunately abandoned hardly a quarter into the film, the catastrophic rooster Heihei manages to both provide comic clumsiness while also redeeming itself as somewhat useful later in the film. There are no Pascals or Maximuses from Tangled, but there are no Jar-Jars either. Whew!
Moana is an excellent film that finishes what was started beginning with Brave, and drove the point home with Frozen: girls, independent from their male counterparts, rock! Disney continues its work of redefining the princess film sub-genre by delivering a mighty blow to damsel in distress tropes while also empowering the stories of people lost in the creative and and historical imagination but very well do exist. The five years of research prior to the film’s development bears fruit in this South Pacific film enlivened by succulent vegetation seen in the islands and the vivacious waves in the sea. Moana is some of Disney’s best work yet.
The Bottom Line