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MovieGeek: Moana

Two Disneyfied thumbs way, way up for Moana, the latest in what some are calling Disney's Second Renaissance.*

I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but I'd definitely rank it among my favorites of the last several years. It's a refreshing adventure of a young woman striving for her identity - wait, have we heard this one before? Yes, we've had the "I don't fit in, I want more than this, who am I and how do I fit in this world?" heroine in Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Pocahontas, Brave, The Little Mermaid... to a lesser extent, Frozen, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog and Aladdin, though those were to a certain extent misfits by circumstance more than by the heroine's nature.

We remember that Belle was restless and stifled by village life; that Mulan, Merida and Pocahontas were placed on the marriage block despite their lack of preparedness or, y'know, fondness for the grooms; that Ariel was unfairly maligned as giving up her ocean life for her man, when actually she was daydreaming of life on land and fascination with humanity long before she first spied her prince. 

Enter Moana, a Polynesian princess (daughter of the chief totally counts) who takes her job more seriously than many other princesses (Jasmine, I'm looking at you). She is not just the girl with a flower crown; she's a leader in training, her father's apprentice, trying to balance her responsibility to her people with her wanderlust for the ocean. More mature than Merida and more focused than Belle, when her nature is at odds with her responsibilities, she chooses to do her duty and serve the greater good.

But when the two sides of her life intersect, the adventure begins.

 

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I've heard some say Moana started too slowly, but I didn't mind a slower buildup to the adventure; the visuals were beyond breathtaking, with a healthy dose of humor to keep things alive. To say that the art of Moana steps beyond Lilo and Stitch is a massive understatement; the artists have really captured the Polynesian islands now, and I have to take back some of the disparaging things I've said about fully computerized animation. It's getting harder and harder to tell the difference. According to what I've read since seeing Moana, only Maui's tattoos were hand-drawn (and by the way, my favorite character), and the visuals were simply amazing.

Maui himself, by the way, was pretty much a delight. Dwayne Johnson learned to act sometime in the 15 years since The Scorpion King, and made a terrific Maui. I can't say the character arc of "self-centered jerk learns humility and grows as a person" is all that unique in Disney films either, but as I've said many times: there are no new stories, only new perspectives on the same stories. 

What is refreshing: No romance. And I'm not always a fan of that - as our children's heroines grow in intelligence, drive and self-assuredness, I don't like the complete elimination of romance from their lives. The idea that a woman cannot be a leader and a life partner at the same time annoys me greatly; it was pretty much the primary conflict in The Princess and the Frog, with Tiana depicted as working so hard toward her goal of owning her own restaurant that she eschewed connections with other people and specifically with men. The underlying message: you can have your restaurant or you can have the man you love, but not both. Fortunately that isn't how it ends up, subtext bedamned. And then I can keep loving that film.

In decades past, we taught girls that all they could hope to be was a wife. (Mocked soundly by Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, if you've heard his hilarious "proposal" in the stage version titled "Me.") Her story was complete when she found her man. We should be wary of swinging the other way: Yes, little girl, you can have your leadership and self-determination, but only if you never fall in love. 

However, Moana doesn't give us such an asinine conflict, because there is no love interest. Moana's age is unclear - voice actress Auli'i Cravalho was 14 years old at the time of casting, she's drawn as maybe 16 - and Maui is both mentor and comic foil, certainly not what would be a skeevy romantic interest. Her struggle is focused on a different arena, and that's just fine. To quote critic Dave Calhoun, "There's not a prince or potential husband in sight; Moana's future is entirely defined by her leadership and ability to fend off the mansplaining know-it-all Maui. As messages go, we'll take it."

(Extra credit for their argument on whether Moana is a princess. Maui says yes: "You wear a dress and have an animal sidekick; you're a princess!" Ah, Disney, I love you.) 

I was not as in love with the music as everyone else. It wasn't bad music, mind you; this is Disney. They haven't had bad music since Home on the Range, which I saw in the theater at full price, to my regret. Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame was signed to write the music before his Broadway show became the biggest hit in decades, and the music is perfectly passable. With Disney, I'm used to music that brings tears to my eyes and sticks in my head for days afterward. Within hours of seeing the film, I couldn't recall lyrics or tunes. But that doesn't make it bad; just not an auto-buy.

Also: Hei-hei the chicken can be nuggets. He was touted as "the stupidest Disney character in the history of animation," and they were right.

But the film is a lot of fun, with positive messages for young people and a healthy respect for the environment and culture it depicts. I will happily add Moana to my Disney collection, and am glad it is doing well, to encourage this kind of filmmaking for the next generation to wear the mouse ears.

 

* Third, if you count the original films of Snow White through Cinderella as the First Renaissance, but I just think of them as The Beginning... 

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