Ron Clements and John Musker (2016)
This latest Disney animated “princess” movie has dominated the box office for the past two weeks and is the darling of the critics with a whopping 97 percent rating on rottentomatoes.com. Yet these things in themselves are usually not enough to make my wife break her self-imposed boycott of animated films (“They’re cartoons! Duh!”). When I let it be known that Lin-Manuel Miranda had composed the music for the film, however, I suddenly found myself sitting next to my actual wife at an actual animated feature, and we finally did go to see Moana. If you are one of the millions who have already seen the movie, sorry this is late, but hey, cut me some slack: I didn’t think I was going to get to it at all.
Those songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, co-written with Disney veteran Mark Mancina, are certainly lively and melodic, from the opening “Where You Are” to the humorous “Shiny” to the very catchy “How Far I’ll Go” (perhaps this year’s “Let It Go”?). But the Samoan singer/songwriter Opetaia Foa’i, frontman for the Oceanic fusion band Te Vaka, has his fingerprints all over the film’s final score. A high point of the soundtrack is his duet with Miranda on the song “How Far I’ll Go.” But the fact is, this is not Hamilton, and while the music may be a significant element in the product it is not the backbone of the entire piece as it would be in a Broadway musical. So you’re not likely to be binge-listening to Moana’s soundtrack the way you may have Hamilton’s. But your kids might.
Here, though, the plot is what is key. More than any other Disney “princess” movie that I can recall, with the possible exception if Mulan, Moana is placed squarely in the realm of myth. In the beginning, we are given a sweeping back story, delineating the great ocean voyages, the “wayfinding,” of the Polynesian people, greatest sailors in the world, who voyaged throughout the Pacific and settled widely scattered islands everywhere some 3,000 years ago. But the people stopped voyaging, and the myth, as presented in the film, describes how the great demigod Mauri stole the heart of Te Fiti, goddess of fertility, with the intent of bringing it to human beings in order to give people that power of creation. But the great lava-beast Te Kā also wants the heart, and battles Mauri for it, and Mauri, defeated, loses the heart stone as well as his giant fish hook, which gave him his formidable shape-shifting powers.
Enter Moana. Voiced by the young Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, Moana is the local Chief’s daughter on the island of Motunui, a place where her people have lived happily for untold generations, but which is now dying—the cocoanut crop is failing, there are no more fish to be caught inside the reef that circles the island. All of this is the result of the blight that has come to the peoples of the great ocean through Mauri’s foolish theft of Te Fiti’s heart. But a side effect of that mythic violation was the determination that the people of Motunui—once among the great sailors of the world—would no longer venture into the ocean in their boats. And therefore Moana, clearly chosen even at a very young age by the sea itself to restore the heart, is constantly stymied by her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), who demands that she keep the tribal custom of staying on the island, and that she prepare for her destined role as his successor and chief of her people.
Fortunately for Moana, she has a feisty grandmother, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who, as the chief’s mother, doesn’t really feel it necessary to listen to him, and with her encouragement Moana does commandeer a boat and head out into the open water (along with an addled chicken for companionship) on a quest to find Mauri, compel him to get in the boat and sail with her to restore the heart of Te Fiti. Thus the tale becomes an archetypal quest narrative, with Moana engaging in a true Odyssey, fighting monsters and pirates, searching for a lost demigod and an infertile fertility goddess.
Now Disney princess movies have often involved such classic quests, but in the early films—Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty—the princess was either the object of the quest itself or the prize for the hero’s successful adventure. The heroines began to evince more agency of their own in films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, until in a significant shift of perspective, the princesses became the true heroes of their stories, particularly in films like Pocahontas and Mulan, until the male love interest became decidedly secondary in the more recent Frozen. With Moana, we’ve taken a big step in a decidedly feminist direction: There is no male love interest at all for Moana. Her sole interest is in completing the quest and saving her people.
There is even an amusingly self-referential moment when Mauri (voiced with comic gusto by Dwayne Johnson) calls Moana a “princess” while she insists she is nothing of the kind, but prefers to be called a “chief’s daughter.” A distinction without a difference Mauri seems to imply, saying “You’re wearing a skirt, and you’ve got an animal sidekick—you’re a princess.” The fact is, though, there really is a difference between Moana and the long line of princesses that have come before, any of whom might become romantically entangled with the demigod himself, if that were possible. But it’s not going to happen here. Moana is her own woman.
For the vast majority of the film, Mauri is no particular help at all. As played by Johnson, though, he manages to steal nearly every scene he is in. He is boisterous and funny, in many ways the high point of the film in terms of acting. He recalls nothing if not Robin Williams’ tour de force performance as the genie in Aladdin. And this should not be surprising: Clements and Musker also directed Aladdin back in the day. Their filmography helps explain another familiar motif in the film: the adolescent girl chafing to go out on her own and explore things beyond her limited venue is a repeat of Ariel’s dilemma in The Little Mermaid—a film that, guess what? Clements and Musker directed together as well.
One complaint some may have about the movie is that it’s predictable. Well, duh. It’s an archetypical hero quest, and follows the formula for that kind of story. It’s also a Disney princess picture and there are certain motifs (girl longing for adventure wants to break out of her narrow life, girl hears songs about how great this life is (“What do they got? A lot of sand. We got a hot crustacean band!”), girl sings songs about wanting to break out of that life (“I want much more than this provincial life”), girl faces dangers and comes through successfully. All these elements are there in Moana—here the songs are “Where We Are” and “How Far I’ll Go” (guess which serves which function?), but it has its variations as well (the feminist angle, the boastful reluctant helper), which give the film its own identity within the parameters of the archetype and the formula.
I need to add one thing: my wife, the notorious anti-animationist, had one observation after the film: “It was beautiful.” The visuals are stunning, and for once I regretted not seeing it in 3D. The blues and green of the sea and the lush Polynesian landscape, the spectacular images of the goddesses and monsters, and the basic animation of the characters themselves (and I should note in passing that for once the heroine of a Disney princess movie is not shaped like a Barbie doll but like an actual sixteen-year old human person), all aspects of the visuals are luscious, and conjure up the beauties of the Polynesian islands they simulate.
This is a was better than the average Disney cartoon. It may not be the best animated movie of 2016 (that distinction still belongs to Kubo and the Two Strings, in my opinion), but I believe it is worthy of three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare. See what you think.