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Movie Review: Moana

Friday, December 16, 2016 - 07:00

I'm fairly picky about which animated movies I see because there are some common tropes that grate on me. And Disney movies that "trespass in someone else's garden" (to use the Alpennian saying) face a high hurdle. I'd seen enough advance discussion and critical evaluation of this movie from people with roots in Polynesian culture to have confidence that, although not without flaws, Moana took cultural representation issues seriously and had worked to have creative staff and consultants from within the culture. (That's not a guarantee of success, of course, but it's a start.) I'm not going to review issues of represenation, because that's not my call to make. I'll just be talking about how this works for me as a story.

The title character is the teenage daughter of a chief (but not a "princess," as she explicitly tells the other major character) on a not-entirely-idyllic Pacific island, who has some sort of mystic connection with the ocean that has been suppressed due to her people's strangely fearful relationship with the waters outside their island's reef-rimmed lagoon. Backstory is supplied by the story-telling of her beloved grandmother who serves the role of mentor and provides the encouragement for Moana to embark eventually on her quest. It seems the folk-hero Maui, in the process of doing Great Feats to Benefit Mankind, angered/damaged the earth goddess Te Fiti by stealing her "heart", a small carved green stone. The not-entirely-idyllic conditions worsen as the mystic blight resulting from this event starts spreding to the island. Moana's grandmother gives her three key things: the heart stone, which she has kept since the ocean delivered it to Moana as a toddler; directions to the hidden cavern where the great ocean-crossing ships of her ancestors have been stored (and where a vision shows her a glimpse of their forgotten art of wayfinding); and hope that Moana can protect her people best by seeking out Maui and convincing him to return the heart to Te Fiti.

Things I loved about the movie:

  • The loving relationships between all the characters. Even Moana's father's attempt to suppress her love for the ocean comes entirely from a place of love and has nothing to do with gendered expectations or suppressing dreams and ambitions. And the relationship--both as family and mentor--between Moana and her grandmother is incredibly powerful and individual, rather than fulfilling some archetypal template.
  • Moana's grandmother. I'll make this a separate "thing I loved." It's entirely too rare to get an older female character as powerful, nuanced, and plot-critical as this. Can we have an entire movie about Moana's grandmother?
  • The complete absence of any sort of romantic plot. Moana doesn't simply say "romance isn't the end-all be-all" the way Frozen did; romance doesn't even come into the question. Moana's relationshp to Maui is entirely one of independent equals, allies, and eventually friends. (Maui may be a demi-god but Moana is in every way his equal--with a little help from a personified ocean, mind you.) Even their teasing banter never felt like it had any whiff of flirtation, to me. (Maui may have expected adulation, but it was in no way romantic in flavor.)
  • The way the obstacles and challenges were solved by wits every bit as much as by strength. Maui did a fair amount of addressing problems by clobbering them, but in the end, simple physical strength alone would never have succeeded.
  • The way representations of Polynesian visual arts were used to signal shifts in the storytelling framing. (Ok, Maui's animated talking tattoos were more than a bit corny, but as a representation of his internal dialogues with himself, I suppose they worked.)
  • The way the story structure, the challenges, and the solutions derived from the cultural context as presented. I particularly like the details about wayfinding and all the details about sailing and boat handling.
  • The true nature of the final challenge. (No spoilers. I'll just say it felt very right.)

Things I was less enthusiastic about:

  • Ok, ok, I get that the "goofy non-human companion" is a Disney Thing. And I can see the various story functions that the rooster Heihei performs. Even his apparently disfunctional eating habits are a key plot point. And I've dealt with chickens--we aren't talking about highly intelligent creatures at the best of times. But I was uncomfortable with the depiction of intellectual disability for comic purposes. Even in a chicken.
  • Disney movies always draw from contemporary pop music. This is a fixed thing. I get it. But some of the songs just felt very jarring in musical style for the setting. It's not that I expected the entire show to use authentic Polynesian musical stylings (though I loved the bits that were incorporated) but some were more jarring than necessary. The giant glitter-crab's song is a salient example.
  • Given the historic context of the Polynesian exploration and colonization of an immensely far-flung spread of islands, the starting point of "Oh, we're going to isolate ourselves here on this one island, with no contact with other regions and people, and never cross the ocean again," felt a bit disrespectful. In order to set up the structure of a "hero's journey" for Moana, they evidently felt it necessary to create a single trigger-point for her success. As a plot structure, it works, but it feels like a distortion of the historic/cultural context.

Overall, far more to love than to dislike. Highly recommended. But I want to add some things I don't normally include in movie reviews. I went out looking for some recommendations of children's literature based in Polynesian and Hawaiian culture from an "own voices" perspective, as a "where do I go next" for those (especially children) who enjoyed Moana. This is not an extensively researched or exhaustive list--just an hour of intense googling--and it's entirely possible that I may step on a land mine or two in compiling it, but it's an attempt.

Lehua Parker offers her own review of Moana and not only is a writer herself but has a lot of reivews of YA/Children's literature including having a specific tag for Pacific literature.

I don't know how much YA content there is on Samoan author and blogger Lani Wendt Young's site, but it looks worth exploring.

HUIA Bookshop specializes in Maori-related books, including children's and YA literature.

Hawaiian-based SFF author Kate Elliott graciously pointed me at a wealth of resources for Hawaiian culture, and in particular for traditional sailing and navigation techniques. Here's a selection:

Polynesian Voyaging Society -- the "gold standard" website for traditional sailing and navigation.

Educational programs aimed at children on Hawaiian history and culture

Website about the voyage of the Hōkūle‘a, a traditional Hawaiian seagoing ship that is in the middle of circumnavigating the globe

An essay on the Hawaiian Renaissance by George S. Kanahele (May 1979)