Movie Review – Moana

Moana (2016, dir. Ron Clements, John Musker)

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Moana is captivated by the stories her grandmother tells about her people and their mythology. The story of the demigod Maui particularly inspires a sense of exploration in the young woman. However, she is the daughter of the village leaders and is expected to maintain life on the island as it is. The ocean begins to communicate with Moana, and she learns from her grandmother that their people used to sail across the ocean living on different islands. When Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, darkness began to spread across the world. That darkness has reached the shores of their island and Moana cannot stay put any longer. She sets out to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti, saving her people.

In 1989, Disney released The Little Mermaid, a film that would serve as the template for princess movies to come for the next 25+ years. Moana very closely follows that formula: A young woman expected to follow the expectations of her parents, she feels a yearning to travel beyond the borders of the land she knows, an event occurs that pushes her beyond the boundaries, she has a weird/silly/funny pet, she conquers a great evil despite feeling apprehensions. It is the traditional hero’s journey story that has cleverly replaced the original Disney style of princess stories. If you haven’t seen movies like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty recently then you may have forgotten how annoying the characters are. Those earlier animations seem more like an exercise in animation technique more than a story about characters with arcs. So, while I greatly appreciate Disney presenting stories about more active rather than reactive princesses, I hope that we continue to see diversity in character but also in the way stories are told and the types of stories being told. Zootopia highly impressed me as a kind of story I haven’t seen from Disney before.

Moana is a lot of fun, but I know I am not the intended audience for this film. It’s a children’s film and thus the story arcs are very evident and classical. There’s not a lot of character complexity but that wouldn’t be appropriate for the intended audience. One element I greatly appreciated was that the film doesn’t have a villain that follows the characters through the whole movie. This lets the movie feel like an actual myth being retold and keeps the focus on Moana’s arc rather than subplots. There are some antagonists who show up, my personal favorite being the Kakamora, animated coconut pirates. The sequence where these monsters attack has been revealed to be a direct reference to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is just subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as a crass pop culture reference. The film’s final obstacle in the form of Te Ka the lava demon has a clever twist that shies away from the act of killing the “final boss”. Lately, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to films that don’t follow the traditional black/white good/evil dichotomy. And it is very refreshing to see this in a children’s film.

I was very impressed with the level of computer animation. It took me awhile to be sold on the aesthetic as a replacement to classic cel animation for Disney pictures, but at this point, they have really perfected it. I’m not one who expects CG to be “realistic,” I’d rather see the technology be used to create the fantastic and impossible. Why recreate something we can already see in the real world when you can make something look real that could never be. While watching Moana, I was captivated by the texture and weight of objects. The previously mentioned Kakamora looked more like stop motion animation than something that was flat and two dimensional. People still look flat to me, but the world around them (grass, trees, water, man-made objects) looked like you could lift and hold them.

With Moana and Zootopia up against each other at the Oscars, I would still have to give it to Zootopia. This is not a slight to Moana, but an acknowledgment that Zootopia was a kind of story we have never had in as much depth and relevance from Disney before. Moana, while an excellent example of Disney creating more diverse characters, follows a very traditional and unsurprising story arc. It’s a film I’m sure kids and parents will enjoy watching again. Zootopia is a larger statement that I suspect will be remembered and studied in a way Disney films don’t traditionally do.

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