‘So I believe what you were trying to say, is “Thank you”.’
Yes, yes, oh my goodness yes. THANK YOU DISNEY!!! Thank you for a self-referential, aesthetically stunning, witty and finger-snappingly fabulous narrative. Celebrating authentic Pacific mythology, Moana brings the tales to life with the vocal and musical talents of artists whose cultures shine out within the multicultural vibrancy of this narrative.
Auli’i Cravalho voices our eponymous heroine, whilst action goliath Dwayne Johnson blew us all away with his rather impressive vocal talents as the gentle giant Maui.
The story is typically Disney: an individual of tender years, destined for something greater than the containment of their homestyle boundaries, encounters an earth-shattering disequilibrium which they must conquer if a new equilibrium is to be found. The battle isn’t just external, more often than not an internal struggle is the greatest calamity that the protagonist must overcome.
Such is the case for Moana, our feisty teenage lead. The daughter of a chieftan, Moana faces a certain future: the next leader of her people, it is her responsibility to lead her people, preserve her heritage and never leave the sanctuary of her island home. However, our Moana is special: chosen by the ocean for a great task, she has always known something drew her heart beyond the idyll of her home, beyond the role her tribe and family have carved out for her. When destiny literally comes a-calling in the form of a sickness polluting her island paradise, you just KNOW that this is her first test: stay and attempt to fight the inevitable of the impending doom, or strike out on her own against tradition.
Taking a boat, some supplies and a determinedly ineffectual chicken side-kick, she sets out to fulfil the mission she believes herself fated to complete.
So, basic premise outlined, lead character introduced by no fewer than three songs, animal accomplices onboard (literally) and disequilibrium openly running amok. So far, so traditional. But this film does so much more than paint by numbers for box-office success.
It seems that Disney films thrive on positively postmodern elements: artistry, characterization, poignancy, humour, and intertextuality. The self-referential aspect combines humour and narrativity within one delicious bite, and Moana is packed to the rafters with it. Humour comes pouring in from every angle, whether it reflects upon the stereotypical Princess Qualities, intermedial references to other films from the portfolio– heck, even famous works of art come in for the Disney Wink (anybody spot Rodin’s The Thinker?).
So let’s have a look at some of the most evident echoes of the Films of Disney Past.
First up: The Lion King. This was a fairly open parallel, Moana’s father showing his young daughter the physical symbol of her place in the natural order of life whilst looking out over her kingdom from the top of a mountain. Mountain? Pride Rock. The stack of stones? The celestial Kings of the Past. Moana placing her rock on the mountain? The Circle of Life. So far, so simple.
Next? Chinese epic Mulan. Echoes of Mulan’s preparation montage find themselves reimagined in Moana’s rebellion very early on in the film. Father tells his daughter to find her place whilst protecting the family? Bad move, dad. Instead, your daughter will take matters into her own hands: she’ll grab a mode of transportation, symbolically tie her hair out of her face and defy expectation. She will, ultimately, save the day, and you may well have been fearful for her future, but your attempt to control and contain have backfired in a spectacular fashion.
Whispers of Pocahontas weaves themselves in and around the mystic Grandmother: part earth mother, part whip-snapping ball of sass, Moana’s grandmother is the human version of Grandmother Willow. Imparting words of wisdom, teaching her granddaughter to listen with heart and head to the world around her, she becomes the Natural Being symbolic of the world she fought so hard to preserve in an ever-changing age. In the face of disaster, she was Faith. In the opposition of darkness, she literally lights the way for her intrepid granddaughter to follow. Swap bark for gills, and you have it.
Other cinematic references are minor, but noticeable. The Little Mermaid‘s Sebastian is openly targetted by the gargantuan crustacean Tamatoa. The artistic style of Maui’s “Your Welcome” musical number hails the song and dance features of Hercules and the five Muses. Look no further for Finding Nemo references in the variety of aquatic life splashed throughout the film. Pinocchio‘s Jiminy Cricket and Peter Pan‘s mute but spunky Tinkerbell find their inky cousin in Maui’s tattoo, the silent but virulently active conscience for the demi-god. Even the visualised musicality of Fantasia 2000‘s “The Firebird” finds aesthetic echoes in the volcanic Te Ka and organic Te Fiti.
Fourth wall? What Fourth wall? Smashing down the cinematic barrier between character and spectator is not an unknown convention in any film, but the combination of wry self-reflexive commentary mixed in with comedic slapstick gave this device a fresh feel. Maui, the wise-cracking demigod, acts as our Chorus- narrating our experience with the omniscience of a deity but the fatalistic humour of a mortal. He is the medium for both sides of the coin: in-narrative, he is the guidance Moana needs to complete her task, but for the audience, he is our immersive bridge to the action. Find it odd that a teenage girl, with zero wavefinding experience, is The Chosen One? Maui voices it. Perplexed by the mentally challenged chicken? Maui voices it (and attempts to eat it). Cheer on Moana for finding the bravery to admit her faults, but persist despite the obstacles? Cue Maui and mute Mini-Maui tattoo leading a rousing applause for us. Heck, it’s at this stage that we understand how broken the fourth wall is: as Maui conducts the in-narrative applause, we see ourselves reflected in Maui’s inky mortal fans.
There are more socially-fueled elements to this film, too: Moana smashes down gender barriers, taking the position of lead female without needing the romanticism of a destined relationship to qualify her as a protagonist, or disguise herself to prove her worth in the eyes of her people. In fact, she is celebrated as the future of her people in a cyclical awareness of the fertility of The Mother: the film kicks off with the promotion of her future as the leader of her island. First female chief after a long line of sons? No problem, her father will proudly lead her to the top of the island’s tallest mountain, telling her that she’ll add her rock and claim her place just the same.
Moreover, Moana is a teenage girl who ACTUALLY looks like a teenager! Yes, she wears a skirt and shows a bare midriff: is she ripped? Does she boast an impressive cleavage? No? Good! The lack of sexualisation allows her character to shine through, bringing a wholesome joy to the lead. A character who gets by without the need for batting her eyelashes or showing a well-toned calf is exactly what I’d like to see more of, seeing as it brings an ironic maturity to the screen which might have otherwise been missing.
There’s no small amount of political symbolism woven into the film, either. Anybody else see the parallels between the nurturing Mother threatened by the impulsive, destructive Masculine Other and current political events? The future of the world depends on the associative care and nurturing female, but a violent and abrasive male entity drives the vibrancy of life away with a wave of destructive, consumptive darkness that rivals The Nothing. To save our world, we must overlook the external and restore the heart. Something to think on, perhaps?
Moana is a masterpiece of laughs, longing and longevity. The narrative is simple, but a classic for its timeless nature of good versus impending evil. The visual effects are breathtaking, balancing the spectacle of environmental realism with the comforting “cartoon” aesthetic we adore. The songs are well constructed, at once soaring epics AND toe-tapping, brain-worming ditties that you’ll be humming for weeks after the screening (take my word on this, I still am).
A PG, this film tackles some quite adult themes with the panache of the Disney label, neither abrasively offensive nor absent for fear of “polluting” childish innocence. At just under two hours long, it’ll make you want to watch it again immediately after the credits start rolling. As soon as this becomes available for pre-order, I’ll be grabbing my copy with absolute glee.