RogerBW's Blog

Moana 14 April 2019

2016 animated fantasy, dir. Ron Clements and John Musker, Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson; IMDb / allmovie. Moana lives on a Pacific island and has always wanted to see more, but the tribe forbids anyone from venturing beyond the reef; then Ocean chooses her to find the demigod Māui and break an ancient curse.

The most surprising thing to me about this Disney fantasy is that it's (loosely) based on actual Polynesian history: they really did stop voyaging and trading from island to island and settle down, some time about 1000 BCE, for about a thousand years; then they started again. (The most plausible explanation is climate change modifying the well-known ocean currents so that boats didn't reach their destinations any more.) And while the directors are both old white men, they did have the sense to talk to people who actually knew about Polynesian culture to try to keep things at least vaguely respectful. (Which didn't stop Disney getting into bed with Hawaiian Airlines to promote tourism, of course.)

On the other hand, while it's good to see a fairly standard coming-of-age story done with a girl rather than a boy at the centre of it, and better again that the tired old "girls can't do X" from earlier versions of the script was dropped for the actual film, I can't help but notice that an awful lot of what Moana ends up doing is mothering the whimsical Māui and persuading him to use his superpowers rather than sulk, give up and/or go away. Yes, she helps along the way, she learns to navigate, and she solves the final puzzle, but for a film about a girl's growth into a heroine there's an awful lot of the man's story here.

It also removes some of the power of the story when one realises that Ocean is blatantly shielding Moana from peril; yes, at an external level I realise nothing too horrible is going to happen to her because she's the heroine of a Disney story, but when that becomes internal to the narrative as well (Moana is thrown off the canoe and immediately deposited back onto it by the water) it can't help but damage my enjoyment.

The songs are decent, though for me nothing to match Let It Go; they seem designed to show off the singers' ability to do slightly tricky things more than to be enjoyable songs to listen to, and the non-"star" choral vocal pieces are the ones I find myself humming a few days later. The animation is pretty and shiny, but utterly soulless, every lock of hair and droplet of water utterly perfect. The only bit that feels real is Māui's animated tattoos, effectively black-figure cartoons – and that was the only bit that was drawn by hand.

Oh, and Moana gets an animal companion of course (this is even explicitly called out); it's a chicken that is literally too stupid to eat. This is apparently funny.

But in spite of all these problems, it works pretty well. The story may be hackneyed, but that's just another word for universal. Pacing is good. Moana (at least once she grows beyond the toddler level of the early scenes) manages to be an interesting character as well as fitting into the standard heroine mould.

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