Well, it took some time but I finally saw Disney’s latest animated feature film, Moana. I missed seeing it in theaters by thismuch and had to wait for it to be released on dvd (do people still say dvd, or have they defaulted to blu-ray? I’m so out of touch with what the hip kids are saying these days). I knew next to nothing about the plot going in, and was optimistically hopeful that the film would live up to Disney’s other most recent endeavors. Suffice it to say, it lived up to its predecessors, and then some.
For those who haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet (no major spoilers ahead, but I will discuss key plot elements), Moana is the story of a young Polynesian girl who is the daughter of a chief (she dislikes being called a “princess”). She’s destined to take her father’s place as ruler of their island, but Moana’s heart pulls her elsewhere: specifically, the ocean, a place she and her people are forbidden to go. Like any teenager, she craves what she’s been denied, and through a series of events Moana finds herself on a journey across the ocean. She is joined by Maui, a demi-god (voiced by Dwayne -stop trying to pretend your middle name isn’t “The Rock”- Johnson) who is less than helpful at times but always entertaining. Moana is trying to return a stone to a specific island, a magical item that represents the heart of the Earth… okay you know what? It’s way too hard to describe this plot accurately (or explain why this movie is good) without giving away spoilers.
If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it RIGHT NOW. I’ll wait.
It’s so great, right??
From this point on I’m going to assume that you heeded my instructions and watched the film. If you’re a rogue and decided to ignore my instruction, BEWARE THE SPOILERS.
Okay, let’s talk about what the film does well:
I have had half the songs from this film stuck in my head for a week, no lie. Part of that may be due to the fact that Mistah J downloaded the entire soundtrack and proceeded to sing the songs all weekend, but it’s kept them fresh in my mind. There’s your perfect blend of Disney tones: we get the heartfelt ‘why don’t I fit in’ style song, sung beautifully by lead actress Auli’i Cravalho, The Rock sings an upbeat tune essentially touting how amazing he is, and our main villain’s song is performed by a giant crab who exclaims over and over that he’s so shiny all while insulting (and trying to eat) Moana and Maui. The music reminded me of the greats from the Disney Renaissance, so much so that like those great films, I could easily see this one taking a spin on Broadway at some point. “Shiny” specifically stands out, serving as one of the antagonist’s shining moments (couldn’t help it) and yet somehow projecting a “they can’t dull my sparkle” uplifting sentiment as well. If you’re having a bad day, just blast that song while dancing around like the badass you are. You’ll undoubtedly feel 1,000% better.
In recent films Disney seems to have decided to stick to certain stock tropes for its characters, especially when it comes to Disney princess films. There’s the leading lady, a funny and charming romantic interest, a cute animal sidekick, an antagonist who is clearly evil yet the viewer can’t help but find aspects to like, and a few ancillary characters to round out the mix. To be fair, Moana abides by many of these rules, and frankly there’s nothing wrong with that. They work, and you can’t fault Disney for re-using basic storytelling techniques that have proven successful in the past. The one major change in Moana though is a big one for me: there is no romantic interest. Prior to seeing the film, I was certain that Moana would be romantically linked to someone, either Maui or an as-yet unknown boy from her island. It seemed inevitable, given Disney’s past princess films. Instead, the focus of the film is entirely on Moana’s journey, with not even a hint at any romantic entanglements. Even when her parents discuss her future as chief, there is never any mention that she must have a husband by her side.
THANK YOU DISNEY. If you’re a guy reading this, maybe you don’t get why I would consider this such a big deal. Let me explain: growing up, the only female Disney characters I had to look up to were princesses whose entire existences were heavily focused on romantic relationships. From Snow White and Sleeping Beauty all the way up through Pocahontas and Mulan, there was always a figurative (and sometimes literal) knight in shining armor there to save the day, or at the very least serve as motivation for the princess’s actions. Even recent films like Tangled and Frozen are heavy on the romantic subplots, even if they’re not the primary focus of the film. As a child these characters led me to believe that a romantic relationship should be the primary focus of my attention. Even as the films progressed and Disney started allowing the princesses to have their own dreams and personalities, there was still a prince waiting in the wings for them. With Moana, young girls will finally have the chance to look up to a Disney princess who is perfectly fulfilled without a man in her life.
That being said, obviously I have no problem with Disney telling a love story, but it’s nice to see that they’re finally branching out and accepting that young girls can enjoy a good old-fashioned adventure story even if it doesn’t have the romantic element. This is SO IMPORTANT for the way young girls (and boys) are brought up, and I’m thrilled that Disney has finally expanded out into this uncharted territory.
Mini-rant over, back to the movie:
I try to be fair-minded when I write these posts, and review from all angles to try and appreciate the good and the bad. To be completely honest, I’m having difficulty thinking of any negatives about this film. The animation, voice action, story-telling, music: it was all very well done. There’s a part of me that’s sad that I won’t ever have the childhood nostalgia for this film the way I do say, The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. It will undoubtedly become a classic in Disney’s canon, and hopefully the studio continues producing films of this caliber.
As I finish writing this, I’m bopping to “You’re Welcome”, The Rock’s solo song in the film (I broke down and bought the soundtrack, couldn’t help it). The fact that I can’t write without dancing in my chair and singing along seems like praise enough.
Also, if you haven’t already seen it, go watch the post-credit scene. It’s brief, but it may have been one of my favorite parts. Trust me.