Starring: Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson
Directed by: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams
Moana is the 56th Disney Animated film, and it is a visually stunning piece, showcasing the wonder and beauty of the Pacific Islands. The trailers and synopses online are sadly out of date now, but that’s an advantage. Most of what we knew no longer applies, and considering this movie was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, the most immersive experience I’ve had at a movie in a long time, that’s a plus. My showing was in digital 3D; I’d say that if resources permit, it’s absolutely worth seeing that way. It was so smoothly done that I didn’t feel–as I usually do–that it was just a gimmick. It served to enhance the lushly rendered scenery.
Before getting into the film itself, however, a tip of the hat should also go to the opening cartoon short, Inner Workings. It’s a mostly silent piece about a guy whose brain kind of runs the rest of his body like it always knows best…until it learns better. The goofily geometric animation seems a little off-putting at first, but is used as a vehicle for the story. It also has the heart theme in common with the main feature.
Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers after this point. Please proceed at your own risk.
Moana strikes new ground in a handful of significant ways. She is the first Disney princess to have both parents alive at the beginning of the film and still alive by the end. She is not as worldly as many of the Disney princesses who have had libraries or fairy godmothers to teach them skills that would be valuable once venturing out from home. What she has is a grandmother who knows that the legendary yarns she spins are true, and the Pacific Ocean itself, which serves to keep her safe in an environment that would otherwise make very short work out of a 16 year old girl whose only experience sailing is from observing others.
Moana’s father, Tui, is the chief of their village, and as such, Moana is a princess by birthright, rather than by finding and falling in love with a prince. Maui smirkily points this out to her as their acquaintance continues. There is no romantic love interest at all in the course of Moana’s adventure.
The voice acting was what we’ve come to expect from a Disney movie: Auli’i Cravalho was earnest and precious as Moana. Some moments of her performance will have viewers wishing they could reach into the screen and gather her for a hug. Dwayne Johnson has surprising and impressive emotional range as Maui…and who knew the dude had pipes! The entire voice cast is made up of Pacific Islander actors with the exception of Disney mainstay Alan Tudyk who plays Hei Hei, the least intelligent chicken in the world.
The music pretty much goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Lin-Manuel Miranda is gifted with range and the ability to work a brilliant emotional palette with lyrics. The songs are infectiously catchy. They’re all so good it’s nearly impossible to pick one as the show stopper; though I have to give special love to the David Bowie homage, “Shiny,” sung by Jermaine Clement as Tamatoa the crab.
The film’s credits are chock-a-block with consultants and people with Pacific Island knowledge. The visuals show they clearly spent a lot of time studying Pacific Islander sailing methods.
For the first time, the movie’s entire universe is encapsulated within the Pacific Islands, so there are no intersectionality issues with regard to race. There are no other people in the film who are not Pacific Islanders. I understand there was some concern over Maui being presented as “obese,” but there was no fat shaming in the film, and Maui looked like he had muscle, to me.
I do not know enough about Pacific Islander culture to say whether the film treated it with sufficient respect. There are those who are, though, and their words must be considered seriously. I can only speak in appreciation of Disney having the sense to drop the Maui costume when there was an outcry about it literally using a Pacific Islander’s skin as a costume.
Woman Pain and Man Pain
For a movie that has broken Disney’s sexist rule of giving the film an adjective name–so boys won’t be afraid to go see a film named after a girl–Moana still is a little thinner than I’d like with regard to giving women agency. I couldn’t even find a US movie poster for the film that has the title character by herself. She’s either with Maui or Pua and Hei Hei. (The Italian and Japanese versions have Moana alone! Boys will still come to see the movie even if there’s not one on the poster! Moana is the princess and deserves a poster to herself! Girls should know they shouldn’t have to share the limelight on their own story! Yes, I know Dwayne Johnson got top billing as the ranking star actor, but still! Okay, rant over.)
The village has many women, and even in the visions of her ancestors, there were women aboard the boats. We see them in the village in Moana’s present day. But Moana and her grandmother are the only two who get any significant lines. Once Moana leaves her village and begins her quest, we see almost no other women until the very end of the film when the heart is returned to Te Fiti, putting right the wrong Maui caused. The Kakamora coconut pirates are not human and their gender indeterminate. Te Fiti, despite being a great and powerful goddess, has no lines at all. Tamatoa, who Moana and Maui must fight to retrieve Maui’s magic fish hook, is also male.
The movie’s great strength, though, is Moana’s emotional intelligence and fearless heart. One of the charmingly funny moments in the film is Grandmother Tala explaining the story of how Maui doomed the world by stealing the heart of Te Fiti. Every child in the room is terrified and crying except Moana, who is delighted by the story and fascinated by it. This could easily be explained away as the fact that Tala is her grandmother, but it is clearly intended to indicate that even as a toddler, Moana has an adventurous heart that doesn’t easily give in to fear.
The theme of heart continues into the film. Moana’s emotional intelligence seems to be something she inherited from her grandmother. It fails her with her overprotective father, but that’s more his reticence than any lack on her part. Once she meets the arrogant showboat that is Maui, she starts putting things together about him quickly. His obnoxious personality and enormous ego are a cover for deep pain and insecurity. Once she susses this out, she is mostly able to play him like a fiddle. It helps that one of Maui’s tattoos is kind of playing the Jiminy Cricket role. It encourages Moana when she’s on the right track, and scolds Maui when he is being too much of a jerk. It is also her emotional intelligence that guides her to realize that Te Kā is not a demon who wants the heart for its own, but something else entirely.
One thing that struck me as significant was that Maui, who is treated as a hero in legend, is not let off the hook for being the one to steal Te Fiti’s heart. Moana calls him out for it, but also helps him past the emotional issues that made him do so in the first place, which means she had to be the one to get him through his man pain. By the end of the film he has grown enough that he makes a sincere, and more importantly, genuine apology to Te Fiti for what he has done. It doesn’t contain a “but” or an “if,” blunting its impact or defending Maui.
When Moana had pain to work through, she was not alone. Her grandmother was always there to support her both in life and after her death. The film foreshadowed it with the heartstring-yanking line “there is nowhere you can go that I will not be with you,” but it was no less powerful to see Tala’s forms after her death, keeping the promise to always be there for her granddaughter.
There was also a more literal sort of man pain, in which one of the young men of the tribe was getting his first tattoo, and was wailing and whimpering about it–this was played for laughs and is a bit of toxic masculinity. It was a throwaway gag that wasn’t really necessary to the story. Less toxic was the group of children Tala was entertaining. They were all only toddler age, but it’s still significant that Moana was the only girl in the group, and the only one not terrified. When they were all frightened, Chief Tui let them climb all over him and offered them words of comfort, rather than chiding the boys for being afraid.
The movie also passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, thanks to multiple conversations between Moana and her grandmother. Best of all, Te Fiti’s heart is returned to her, not by Maui, but by Moana. A goddess has another woman to thank for restoring her after a man stole something vital from her.
Small children will love the scenes with little Moana: she interacts adorably with some local fauna and the ocean. Her scenes with Pua the pig and Hei Hei the chicken are also cute and amusing. Little ones will probably also enjoy the scenes with the Kakamora since it is mostly action. The very end of the scene with Tamakoa may be a little nerve-wracking. It goes all “black light” like the “Friends On The Other Side” sequence from The Princess and the Frog.
There are no really mean people Moana meets. All the humans are kind and loving, although her father comes close to being abusive in the first act (think Triton from The Little Mermaid). There is a death scene, but it is portrayed about as gently as possible. The final fight against Te Ka, though, is a bit intense for children under 6 in my opinion.
Summing up, Moana is one of Disney’s most cohesive and internally consistent films. It’s not perfect, but it seems to have given genuine respect to its source material, has no intersectional issues, and only a few issues of feminism and masculinity that it could have done better on. I will be rewatching this one, but not in 3D because those tickets were $18.50 each!
4/5 stars. Loses half a star for the potty humor and the toxic masculinity joke. Loses another half a star because DreamWorks face is a tired and overused trope that Disney can do better than imitate, even if intended as an homage to The Rock’s People’s Eyebrow.