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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.