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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review: Moana

In C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy finds a spell (that's more like a story) in a magical tome that's called "for the refreshment of the spirit". Although she can't remember anything about it but the barest details, I'll always imagine it as being something like Moana, as watching this movie was like having my soul replenished.
To be fair, I was predisposed to love it. Though I'm not Maori/Polynesian, I've lived in New Zealand my whole life and have grown up alongside that culture, listening to the stories of Maui as a child and singing waiatas throughout my school years. Naturally there's no bias whatsoever when I tell you that South Pacific voices are the most beautiful sound upon this earth (don't believe me? Listen to Kiri te Kanawa sing Terakihi and get back to me) and Moana managed to capture the look, feel and sound of Polynesia in a way that gave me genuine chills.
So I was welling up approximately six seconds into the film, and it only got more emotional from there.

In a lot of ways, the story is pretty standard stuff: the plucky Chosen One has to get the MacGuffin to the location to save the world. The MacGuffin in question is just a shiny greenstone, though the quest to get it there is exciting, and there's a great twist when it comes to where exactly Moana has to return it.
The film's central conflict is that the Pacific Island upon which Moana's people live is gradually succumbing to pestilence due to theft of the ocean goddess Te Fiti's heart by the demigod Maui. This took place thousands of years ago, so the disease certainly took its time in reaching Moana's island – but it's been long enough for Moana's people to forget their heritage as sea voyagers.
Moana is also saddled with the increasingly tiresome cliché of the disapproving father who forbids any break from tradition, and though they give him a solid reason for feeling this way, the whole thing comes across as an unnecessary spanner in the works.
The issue is mitigated a little when Moana actually listens to her father and assumes the responsibilities of chieftain-in-training, it being portrayed as a noble and fulfilling path to take. It's only when the situation becomes too dangerous to be ignored that she takes to the sea – not for her own desires, but to save her people from certain death. Yet the story would have been just as powerful had Tui given his blessing to Moana's voyage, knowing it was in the best interests of their people.
But apart from this, the film is concentrated joy. Moana not only has a living father but (even rarer) a living mother! Sina doesn't die, and though it's a small role it's a welcome one. Off the top of my head, the only other Disney protagonists with living biological mothers are Mulan and Simba. And Hercules I guess, but that movie posited Hera as his mother. Just no.
Most importantly Moana has a deep and warm relationship with her grandmother, one who shares her love of the ocean and curiosity about voyaging. I don't really want to give too many spoilers regarding their bond, but there's a recurring motif of a stingray that forms some of the best bits of the entire film.
The plot is largely made up of Moana leaving her island in order to save it – first by recruiting Maui to right the wrong he did all those years ago, and secondly by taking the Heart of Te Fiti back to its rightful owner. Along the way there are plenty of adventures: against storms, coconut warriors, giant crabs and a terrifying lava monster, not to mention Moana's inexperience at wayfaring and Maui's deep reluctance to participate.
It's pretty straightforward stuff, with much of what you've come to expect from the Disney Princess films: there's the action sequence, the scary monster sequence (complete with Villain Song), the bit where the co-leads help each other overcome their hang-ups, the eleventh hour twist and the big climatic finish.
Moana may not be as unpredictable and inventive as Zootopia (the two films will inevitably be pitted against each other when the award season rolls around) but its strength lies in its elegance and purity – I've never before seen the Music Soothes the Savage Beast trope used in a way that doesn't come across as corny or awkward – yet Moana pulls it off. Hell, Moana turns it into a spiritual experience.  
Because this is the internet, there has naturally been controversy about certain aspects of the film – and I wasn't really sure whether to address them or not. For my money, the Polynesian culture is depicted with accuracy and respect, the entire voice cast is comprised of appropriate Hawaiian, Maori and Pacific Island actors, and the musical score is a gift from Lin Manuel Miranda.
That doesn't mean I can talk over people of Polynesian/Maori descent who did have issues (which are discussed here at length) but I can't say I agree with the idea that Maui is depicted as "obese" or "unattractive" or "a huge buffoon." He's muscular, spry and cunning, and though his self-aggrandizing bears little resemblance to the Maui I grew up with (see below) he's given a thoughtful arc and character development of his own.
The original Maui, with jawbone sized fishhook.
Also: his parents didn't abandon him - they thought he was stillborn.
To be honest, I was more disturbed by the character's initial callousness toward Moana, which is treated as a joke but is actually pretty disconcerting. When they first meet he sings "You're Welcome" as a diversion so he can trap her in a cave and steal her canoe. Had she not made a quick escape, she would have starved to death in there. Later she follows Maui into the Realm of Monsters and makes a pretty spectacular landing. His response is a cheerful: "well, she's dead!" before turning his attention elsewhere.
Perhaps this is meant to highlight his existence as a demigod and his indifference to mortal lives – but then the film also tries to sell that he's a great friend to humanity, so it ends up being rather jarring.
Then there's the fact that Moana has no love interest, which some have claimed is an example of women of colour always being left out of romantic entanglements. I've seen my fair share of shitty fandoms which will ship anyone with anything EXCEPT the black/brown girl, but in this case...?
If taken in the spirit with which it's given, the lack of a love interest for Moana is a good thing. It keeps the focus of the story on her growth, her development – besides which she's only about sixteen years old. Yeah, other Disney princesses have married that young, but not these days.
But like I said above, I should not be treated as the expert or authority on any of this. It's just here as food for thought.
Miscellaneous Observations:
I made Moana Woman of the Month last December, but there's so much more about her character that went unmentioned. I think perhaps my favourite thing about her was her agility: she's always leaping, running, climbing or swinging somewhere – in fact, she manages to escape a blocked up cave in a pretty extraordinary way, without the film sacrificing either realism or a sense of the danger she's in.
Moana might be Disney's most mystical film in years: there are demigods and visions and goddesses and spirits and even reincarnation. That said, the one thing that didn't really work was the bond between Moana and the ocean, which is portrayed as a sort of amorphous blob of water. It's not defined clearly enough to come across as a proper character, and yet it's given too much narrative importance as the Chooser of the One and an easy Deus Ex Machina for getting Moana out of trouble. The fact that it's relegated to miscellaneous observations should tell you something.
Based on the promotional material, some viewers might be surprised that it is Heihei the chicken and not Pua the piglet that takes the role of Moana's animal sidekick. Pua gets very limited screen-time – and is perhaps the one instance in which the opportunity to merchandise cute plushies outweighed the needs of the actual story.
Speaking of Heihei, you've heard of Too Dumb To Live – this chicken is too dumb to DIE. He was "voiced" by Alan Tudyk, who would like you to know he went to Juilliard. 
My entire theatre was cooing at the sight of Moana as a toddler. If anything, she was a little too cute – though she gets a great Character Establishing Moment. As all the other children cry at the scary stories Gramma Tala tells them, Moana listens with barely concealed excitement.
As a New Zealander, it was great hearing Temura Morrison and Rachel House as Moana's father and grandmother respectively. Dwayne Johnson was clearly having a great time as Maui, and Jemaine Clement is a quintessential One Scene Wonder as Tamatoa, singing a glam-rock ballet as the closest thing the movie has to a villain. Finally, you'll want to keep your eyes on Auli'i Cravalho in the future. She brings Moana beautifully to life, and has an even more incredible singing voice.
I have a fairly low tolerance level for people being annoying or disruptive in the movie theatre (seriously, put your damn phone away) though I try to be patient when children are involved. Still, I was thoroughly tested when the kid behind me spent the entire first half of the movie asking where Maui was, and the entire second half informing everyone that Maui had arrived.

But it was all worth it when the lights went up and I caught sight of a young Samoan girl whose face was lit up by what she had just seen. I could almost feel the excitement radiating from her, and it was the perfect capper to a great movie experience. 


  1. definitely a movie to watch

    "But it was all worth it when the lights went up and I caught sight of a young Samoan girl whose face was lit up by what she had just seen. I could almost feel the excitement radiating from her, and it was the perfect capper to a great movie experience"
    THAT is just gorgeous

    1. I know! I was already pretty emotional after the film itself, and she was just the cherry on top. To understand the importance of representation, all you have to do is witness the reactions of those that hardly ever get it.