Moana

Spoiler time!

Yeah, I actually got to see a movie during the first week of its release. Don’t get used to it; I doubt it’ll happen again.

Let’s bypass the discussion of cultural appropriation in regard to Moana. It’s relevant, but let’s face it: as a privileged member of the dominant culture, i.e. a white male, anything I say on the subject is automatically going to be suspect. And, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the culture in question to comment on whether it was used respectfully.

So, with that said, I can say that the legend of Maui as presented at the beginning of the film, and later revisited when we meet the hero, is self-consistent and feels like a unified whole, not something that was cherry-picked and grafted onto a pre-ordained plot. Kudos to the staff there.

A few things surprised me in how well they worked.

Based on the trailer, I feared that the pig and chicken would get tiresome. But the filmmakers used them sparingly: the pig only appears at the beginning and end of the movie*, and the chicken spent most of its time confined off-screen, only emerging to satisfy necessary plot points. Best use of a cute animal sidekick in a Disney film I can recall.

* I do have to wonder how the pig survived, though. With no fish and no coconuts, what did the villages eat while Moana was on her quest? It’s not like the film shied away from incorporating death–Moana’s grandmother and, in flashback, her father’s best friend–so why not one more? Handling it sensitively for the benefit of young viewers would be tricky, granted, but an element of “not all endings are completely happy” would have been an interesting evolution for Disney.

I was also worried about Maui’s tattoos. Again, based on the trailer, I thought they would be a distraction from the main story. Instead, they worked very nicely, serving as a way to bring out Maui’s internal monologue.

There’s no perfect creation, however, and Moana does have its faults. I’ll mostly refrain from nitpicking (millenia-old sailing canoes that need no repair work to be seaworthy?), but I do want to talk about Tala, Moana’s grandmother. My apologies to voice actress Rachel House and whoever the voice director was, but whatever effect you were going for, I didn’t think you found it. Specifically, I didn’t think Tala sounded elderly; to me she sounded constrained, as though she feared speaking. It put me off the character and in a couple of places, threw me right out of the story.

That’s unfortunate, but a worse problem had to do with her role in the story. It was fine in the early scenes: she served well as the necessary counterpoint to Moana’s father. And her illness and (off-screen) death and transformation into a glowing manta ray were well-handled, serving nicely as the final push to put Moana in motion and literally guide her outside the island’s reef.

But bringing her back at the climax of the story, especially in full-blown Obi Wan Kenobi mode, complete with blue glow, was unnecessary. Worse, it detracted from Moana’s final transformation from failed-quester-about-to-give-up to victorious hero. At that point, she shouldn’t need a push from outside; remember, she’s already heard all of the sentiments Tala presents here. How much more powerful would the scene have been if those same ideas had come from Moana herself? A trigger would be necessary, certainly, but not something that hands Moana her motivation on a platter. Perhaps the sight of a normal black manta ray as Te Fiti’s heart sank down through the water would have reminded Moana of her grandmother, leading her to remember those same key scenes from before and during her quest.

Despite my complaints, though, I will say that Disney has given us a rousing version of the Hero’s Quest tale, refreshingly free of a romantic subplot. There are only a couple of real audio attention grabbers–I’ll nominate Shiny and You’re Welcome as the most enjoyable–but the soundtrack as a whole is certainly above average, with no absolute stinkers to knock you out of your cinematic immersion.

Moana is well worth your time and admission.

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