Moana Takes Classic Disney to New Frontiers

It’s a beautiful, if risk-averse, representation of Pacific Islander culture and a resilient heroine.
By  · Published on November 21st, 2016

Moana is a call to adventure for a new generation. The story takes cues from Disney classics of the 1990s while bringing a refreshingly vibrant take on the genre with its blend of modern and traditional elements. And while its effort to accurately depict an indigenous culture isn’t perfect, it’s a visually captivating and musically engaging work to behold.

Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the feisty, soon-to-be chief of the people of Motonui, a fictional island set in the South Pacific. Though she may have animal sidekicks (dimwitted chicken Heihei and adorable piglet Pua), Moana does not fit the traditional definition of a Disney princess. In fact, she doesn’t consider herself a princess – she’s merely the chief’s pre-teen daughter. She is bold and curious, more tomboy than girly girl. She has a strong physical build, beautiful brown skin and wavy life-like hair. Deep in her heart and just like her ancestors, she is a voyager. Moana literally means “ocean,” and she has been drawn to it all her life.

When darkness befalls the island, causing natural resources to dry up, the people look to Moana for guidance. She believes a solution lies beyond the reef, but her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) forbids it. His people used to explore the oceans, but he has seen enough tragedies in the water. Wise and witty Gramma Tala (Rachel House) believes the ocean has chosen Moana to save her people. Against her father’s will but with a little help from Gramma, Moana ventures into the ocean to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and with his help return the heart (a glowing green rock) of the goddess Te Fiti. This mission, should she complete it, will restore the natural balance of the island and, ultimately, the world.

Moana and Maui (Disney)
When Moana meets Maui, she quickly learns that he is not the scary trickster of her grandma’s folktales. Once revered by the people for pulling whole islands from the sea, Maui is now an exile on a remote landmass for stealing the heart of Te Fiti. Johnson brings his larger-than-life personality to the mythical figure who can transform into different creatures with the help of his magical fishhook. Maui is like Johnson’s WWF persona The Rock but with more sass. He spits out some witty quips – a pee joke comes to mind – and contemporary zingers – “When you use a bird to write it’s called tweeting!” But the real comic relief actually comes from the animated tattoo version of himself on his chest.

As Moana’s witty shapeshifting companion, Maui draws several comparisons to Genie in Aladdin, an iconic Disney character voiced by Robin Williams, whose performance was a showcase of his speedy comedic expertise. His turn as Genie is so revered that Roger Ebert wrote: “Robin Williams and animation were born for one another, and in Aladdin they finally meet.” Johnson does not have the same chemistry with the medium. Many of his jokes fall flat, and he can come off as brutish and contrived. But for the most part his charming effort manages to bring a lovable appeal to the ostentatious Maui.

The film’s first trailer drew criticism from the Pacific Islander community for its portrayal of Maui as obese, not strong or serious. He is an important intelligent, political and cultural figure in Polynesian history, and his image as a brutish cartoon was disconcerting to some. The film depicts Maui as a strong and thoughtful character. His thick physical build supports him as he scales mountains and protects him in battles with the giant crustacean Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) and the lava monster Te Kā. Is this a thoroughly accurate representation of a historic demigod? Probably not. But it’s an inspired Disney version of one, not unlike that of the Greek gods in Hercules (though most of those gods were drawn with European standards of beauty in mind).

The music is an integral part of the story with lyrics and music composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Mark Mancina (Tarzan) and Opetaia Foa‘i (founder and lead singer of the Oceanic music group Te Vaka). The upbeat opening “Where You Are” is a primer on Polynesian traditions, asking us to “consider the coconut” while talking of its many uses. “We Know the Way,” combines English and Polynesian lyrics to celebrate the rich voyaging history of Moana’s ancestors. Notable highlights are Jemain Clement’s inspired “Shiny” and the version of “You’re Welcome” that plays over the credits – Jordan Fisher sings while Lin-Manuel Miranda raps. Miranda’s contemporary influence is heard in many of the songs. Fingers crossed we hear and see more from the talented Hamilton creator very soon.

Moana is gorgeously rendered in crisp 3D-like animation. During some of the long, drawn out episodes, one can at least take solace in the film’s lush, meticulous visuals. There are also splices of classic 2D animation, like in the opening prologue and in Maui’s “You’re Welcome” song. These are scenes that involve a lot of historical explaining, so the colorful 2D cartoons help to quickly illustrate these complex stories. Although it’s animated, Moana is miles ahead of Robert Flaherty’s 1926 docudrama of the same name (his staged Samoan follow-up to Nanook of the North). Its vivid representation of Pacific Islander cultures and a strong Pacific Islander heroine is important.

The film is ultimately a Disney movie, which has its own brand of limitations. Contemporary Pacific Islander issues of sovereignty and the environment could never be fully told through the Mouse House. The film references the environment but can’t address other important topics since it’s conveniently set on a fictional Pacific island some 2,000 years ago. Though Pacific Islander cultures are connected in many ways, the simplification of those various cultures into a one fictional, unnamed one streamlines their rich individual histories. The ancient setting perpetuates movie tropes of indigenous groups as always living in the past (like Native Americans). On the one hand, Moana is a triumph for diverse representation in movies. It’s a selective and simplifying portrayal on the other.

Kakamora (Disney)
This brings up several important questions about cultural authenticity: Who has the right to tell a story? Who gets to pick which cultures get their stories told? What makes a movie culturally authentic? With Moana under its belt, Disney has told tales about the Pacific, China, Africa, “Agrabah,” and indigenous North America. What other cultures will the studio seek to animate and will they pick smaller, unknown countries or just the ones that lead to the highest box-office margin? Who knows how many Kakamoras, Mauis or Moanas are going to sell out this holiday season? At least they took the culturally insensitive tattooed skin costume off the shelves.

Cultural politics aside, Moana is a fun musical journey to the islands with a resilient heroine as our guide. It’s a gateway for those unfamiliar with the Pacific Islands to learn something new. After all, understanding each other has become increasingly important in these racially charged times. Fingers crossed Moana leads the way for greater, truer media representations of Pacific Islanders and other indigenous or ethnic cultures.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.