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Non-Review Review: Moana

Moana is a fantastic demonstration of the timeless appeal of the long-standing Disney formula.

At first glance, Moana seems very much like an archetypal animated Disney film. It is the story of a young woman who is forced to adventure outside of her comfort zone, surrounded by adorable animal sidekicks and trickster mentors on an archetypal hero’s journey that is set to a toe-tapping soundtrack. It is a template that has served Disney very well, producing any number of beloved family classics over the year. Moana is very much a celebration of that template, and an example of why it works so well.

Islands in the Pacific... That is what we are...

Islands in the Pacific…
That is what we are…

At the same time, there is a faint layer of self-awareness to the script that serves it well. Moana might appear to be an archetypal Disney fairytale story, but that is largely down to its central character. Moana is a celebration of its title character, to the point that it frequently seems like she is propping up the narrative. This is not to suggest that Moana is a deconstruction or subversion in anyway. Instead, the movie almost as a distillation of the appeal of the classic “princess” narrative. It is a story that trusts its lead character to hold a disorganised story together.

Surrounded by dysfunction and chaos, Moana is an affectionate tribute to these sorts of stories.

Good (demi-)god, man!

Good (demi-)god, man!

Of course, the central character of Moana is not technically a princess. In fact, she goes out of her way to stress that she is actually a “chieftain’s daughter.” More to the point, the opening act of the film makes it clear that Moana is more than just the heir apparent to the kingdom. Although her father still seems to govern the tribe, Moana is shown to make crucial decisions about the future and direction of her people. Moana seems almost playful on the point, inviting debates about whether it might technically be described as a “princess” movie.

However, while Moana might not actually be a princess, she very clearly serves as a princess in the narrative sense. As the demi-god Maui teases, “You wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” He might not have a constitutional case, but he clearly understands how Disney narratives work. Moana fulfils that familiar purpose. She is drawn into a gigantic adventure with colossal stakes that has a very archetypal quality to it. Indeed, Moana is remarkably explicit and candid about framing its narrative in symbolic terms.

Sorry, princess.

Sorry, princess.

There is quite literally a cave of forgotten knowledge buried beneath the surface of Moana’s island. There is a physical barrier (reef) that Moana must cross before she can begin her adventure. Maui dismissively refers to her as a “chosen one”, but the script is quite explicit. The very ocean itself appears as an arbitrator that enforced the logic of the plot; it provides Moana with her heroic journey and then directs her every step of the way. The ocean stops just short of taking the form of a writer’s hand overtly guided the narrative to where it needs to go.

This approach works very well. There is an infectious joy to Moana. The movie has a lovely texture and dynamism to it, moving very quickly and energetically. The animation is top notch, particularly during imaginatively choreographed action sequences. The musical numbers are infectious, to the point that the only thing the movie is missing is a true “villain” song in the style of “Be Prepared” or “Gaston.” Of course, depending on one’s reading of the film, “You’re Welcome” or “Shiny” might fit the bill.

Getting his hooks in.

Getting his hooks in.

Given that Moana is the central character in the film, it makes sense that the movie’s emphasis on her archetypal qualities plays into the idea that Moana is very much a stock Disney animated adventure. And it is, to an extent. It contains virtually all of the requisite elements. Any observer could make a very strong case that it is “of a kind” with the bulk of the animated canon from Cinderella to The Princess and the Frog. However, there is something intriguing in how Moana chooses to put these elements together.

Most obviously, Moana is populated by familiar elements that are pointedly dysfunctional. Moana has two animal sidekicks, but they are framed in unconventional terms. Her pet pig gets uncomfortable when Moana confesses to enjoying the taste of pork. While most animal sidekicks tend to be as smart as (if not smarter than) the human characters, Moana also finds herself paired with a chicken that appears to be heavily brain damaged. However, that does not stop several characters from pointing out that chickens tend to be eaten.

Oar else...!

Oar else…!

The rest of the supporting cast have similar difficulties filling their roles. In terms of basic plot structure, Moana‘s most striking deviation from the Disney template is that it lacks a strong villain character. There is no antagonist who fills the roles played by Gaston in Beauty and the Beast or Hades in Hercules. To complete her quest, Moana will eventually have to confront the hideous lava monster Te Ka. However, Te Ka is drawn in the broadest possible terms, and her motivations are left unexplored for the bulk of the film.

This choice makes sense from a structural perspective, in that the script makes a conscious choice to avoid developing Te Ka as an antagonist. It is a smart decision that plays into the themes of the film, but it does lead to perhaps the movie’s sole weakness. Without a clear central antagonist, Moana feels episodic in places. The movie occasionally lacks a strong central drive, with Moana navigating from one immediate crisis to the next without a strong enough central thread.

Making waves...

Making waves…

This is not a major problem by any measure. Given that these episodes involve a glorious confrontation with a collection of (what can only be described as) coconut pirates that have an obvious affection for Mad Max: Fury Road and a sequence in which Jermaine Clement plays a giant crab performing a show-stopping song titled “Shiny”, the episodic structure of Moana has a lot to recommend it. However, it can seem disorientating in a way that Disney movies with a stronger antagonist figure do not.

However, the rest of the supporting cast are similarly ineffective. Maui is very much the magical trickster companion character, a mischievous demi-god with a magic hook that can transform himself into any animal. Maui is part of a rich tradition of free-spirited mentor characters that includes the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, Timone and Pumba from The Lion King and the genie from Aladdin. Early in the film, Moana is assured that she will need Maui’s help to complete her quest.

Tough sail.

Tough sail.

However, the film repeatedly emphasises that Maui will do a terrible job at filling that particular narrative role. Indeed, the entire crisis that Moana is trying to avert is a direct result off Maui’s actions. Maui is at best unreliable and at worst selfish. More than that, he is coded in terms that explicitly gendered. Maui is cast very much as a self-centred tattooed dude bro, introducing himself with a song titled “You’re Welcome!” and obnoxiously signing off with “Maui, out!”

Indeed, Moana spends a significant portion of the film acting as something of a life coach to Maui. She manipulates him into helping, she convinces him to take responsibility. It often seems like Moana is the only character keeping the story on track, the one element of the Disney formula that is working exactly as expected. This is entirely the point of Moana. The princess is the central figure of most conventional Disney animated feature films, but also frequently overshadowed by the supporting cast.

Rocky relationship.

Rocky relationship.

Moana is very much a celebration of that princess archetype, by constructing a story so that Moana’s success is entirely down to herself. She cannot count on the brain-damaged chicken sidekick for assistance. She spends as much time encouraging Maui as he spends teaching her. The ocean is perhaps the most helpful supporting character, but the script stresses how flaky it is. “The ocean is kooky-dook,” Maui offers, demonstrating that he is a better film critic than mentor.

Indeed, there is an endearing feminist undertone to Moana, which repeatedly stresses the importance of its female characters over its male characters. Moana’s father cannot even fulfil the basic plot function of dying to provide his daughter with an emotional arc, delegating the role of “insightful old person” to his own mother. The plot is driven by the defilement of a female island by a male demi-god, and the climax is built upon the rejection of violence committed by a male character in favour of a more reasonable approach from a female character.moana8

(On that note, several of Moana‘s major male characters are framed in terms that emphasis this feminist reading of the work. Maui is portrayed as an archetypal jock character, obsessed with his tattoos and muscles. The villainous Tamatoa is presented as the opposite, the archetypal nerd. Tamatoa is a “scavenger” who would happily compose an entire song and dance number about his “collectables” to anybody who will listen, but is reluctant to share. Ultimately, both Maui and Tamatoa make a lot of noise, but prove largely incidental to the plot.)

Moana is a very clever and fun addition to the Disney canon, and a long overdue celebration of that most reliable of Disney archetypes. It is perhaps the most “princess-y” princess movie in the Disney canon. This is quite impressive, given that it doesn’t feature an actual princess. Then again, that is an example of what makes Moana such an enjoyable experience.

11 Responses

  1. I saw all the positive reviews, but I saw similar notices about Frozen, which I did not like at all. Therefore I had little interest in seeing it. I did like Tangled, however, as well as somewhat liking the Princess and the Frog. Which of those films is Moana the most similar to?

    • Oddly enough, I kinda agree with your assessments. Tangled is the strongest of the recent Disney animated films, although Frozen is far more popular.

      I’d rang Moana with the Princee and the Frog on the Disney scale. Both in terms of quality and conventionality.

  2. I saw this with my 6-year-old daughter, who loved it, but I can’t that it’s going to dominate her life the way that Frozen did 2 1/2 years ago. The songs were fairly unmemorable (I was expecting more out of Lin-Manuel Miranda but I only heard one song that was unmistakably his). I liked the message, and the fact that Moana goes through the movie without a prince or even a love interest. But the script is not nearly as complex as “Frozen” and I can’t say that I’d have much interest in sitting through it again.

    • Yeah, I don’t think it will endure in the same way that Frozen has.

      I’m curious which song you recognise as Miranda’s. I’m not as au fait with his output as I should be, but the only song that I really remember from Moana two weeks on is “you’re welcome.” Which features some really great rhymes. (“I’m just an ordinary demi-guy.”)

  3. “In terms of basic plot structure, Moana‘s most striking deviation from the Disney template is that it lacks a strong villain character”.

    I think most of Disney’s most recent villains, in the post-Princess and the Frog era, to be somewhat lackluster in general, perhaps to follow on the Pixar trail, where most of Pixar’s successful movies have no actual villains or feature villains who are at their core pathetic, sad characters.

    There’s no real sense of cruel threat anymore, the foreboding sensation of danger a Maleficent, Jafar or Scar could bring. In many cases this is because of a need to keep the villain’s villainy a secret and mistery until the last possible moment (like in Frozen and Zootopia/Zootropolis), in other cases it’s because the film’s far more interested on the hero than the villain (like here). Interestingly, the same tends to happen in the Marvel/Disney animated movies, Loki excluded.

    And sometimes it works, because the villains don’t hijack the narrative in detriment of the hero, but repetition has made me long for the days when a bad guy could just be cruel and scary. After all, in the current real world, we see many repeated examples of people being evil, petty and downright murderous for pretty much the sake of it, and that can’t be always excused with a sympathetic background.

    • That’s a fair point. But I do miss the days of fleshed out villains given bombastic villain songs and allowed to wallow in being evil. I also really wish that the Marvel films had better villains.

  4. I finally saw this film, and I confess to being highly disappointed. The visuals were fantastic, but everything else left me feeling hollow. I suppose if you liked the comedy, then the film would work much better, but since I wasn’t laughing much of the time, I was left waiting for the actual plot to begin, and honestly it never really did. The film was incredibly episodic, which I wouldn’t mind if the episodes were well done and engaging, like in Babe 2: Pig in the City or even to an extent Kubo and the Two Strings, but they just weren’t for me. The scene with the sea crab and pirate coconuts added very little, and should have been trimmed down. The ending was also a disappointment, as it took no chances. The comic relief character came back after leaving, a development which I think surprised no one, and Moana succeeds in her quest and is recognized for her skill. Furthermore, everyone lives happily ever after yet again. Why can’t Disney develop the guts to kill off the comic relief? I think the film would have been more powerful if Maui had died, and maybe given the film a bittersweet ending.

    • Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. As far as the episodic plotting goes, I adored the giant crab and the cute little coconut pirates, which were enough to justify the diversions.

  5. Would you rather be shiny?

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