We Know the Way: Musings on Moana

Hey, I have been sitting on this post since December so it’s not particularly timely but I want to talk about Moana. (I always want to talk about Moana.)

Did it get play? I’m sure it made tons of money, but it certainly didn’t reach Frozen levels of hype. I’d like to make the case that it should. I’d like to make the case that Moana deserves a whole lot of love and enthusiasm and feminist high-fives. From a representation perspective at least, if you don’t want to give all your dollars to Disney. (Spoilers for sure ahead!)

Moana is the daughter of the chief of the island of Motunui, and she’s drawn to the ocean even though her father has forbidden anyone from traveling outside the reef that protects them. With one eye on the horizon, Moana trains to become the chief and comes to love her island and the people who live there. As a teenager, she revolves disputes, leads ceremonies, and teaches dances. Villagers remark on what a capable leader she’s becoming, and her authority goes unquestioned.

According to legend, the goddess Te Fiti created the world, and she nurtured it until the demigod Maui stole her heart, the source of her power. He galavanted around with it, making islands to explore, bringing fire to humans and doing the other things you’d expect of a mythological Bugs Bunny. In Te Fiti’s absence, though, the monster Te Ka emerged and eventually defeated Maui. A blight began to spread over the world.

Back in the present day, Motunui’s fishing nets begin to come up empty and the coconuts blacken and crumble. But Moana’s father refuses to act. Her grandmother recognizes Te Ka’s blight and reveals to her granddaughter that their people descended from voyagers. She shows the girl to a hidden cache of canoes and sends her to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti to reverse the curse. So Moana leaves on a rollicking odyssey, battling a series of villains, outsmarting Maui, and defeating Te Ka in a slightly different way than you might expect.

Moana is not a princess, as she reminds Maui when he’s being petulant. In the increasingly common meta-Disney-joke, he points to her pet chicken and responds, “If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” But if anyone is a sidekick, it’s him–-a powerless and petty coward trying to convince our heroine that she should give up on her quest. Moana isn’t swayed. She’s a leader who takes an epic voyage, learns from her mistakes, saves the day, and wins the ability to voyage again with her people. She gets what she wants, and she does it with no cop-outs, pivots to traditional feminine goals, or distracting romantic entanglements. It’s easy to imagine a little boy character in such a role. There have been so many of them over time. Moana nails the zeitgeist and its craving for new, complex, well-crafted stories about little girls and people of color. With a cast that’s almost entirely Pacific Islander, the movie is in many ways a high water mark in representation. (The crew? The animators? I’m less certain. But Taika Waititi wrote an early draft of the script and you get music by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i!)

If you’ll allow me to go deep into the feminist film theory underworld for a moment, Moana spends the entire movie undoing the violence that a male demigod perpetrates against a goddess. YOU. GUYS. I’m just saying that if Elsa’s magic powers can be read as queerness, then I think there’s a rape allegory in Moana.

Now, if all of that good representation doesn’t sell you on the movie, and if a rollicking adventure isn’t cutting it, you’re not much fun, but I still got two more arguments for ya. First, the animation is breathtaking. Each Disney and Pixar movie makes the last one look downright crude as they sharpen challenging physical elements in CGI. I have legitimate hair envy of Moana and Maui, whose dark curls waft gently in the breeze and slump heavily when wet. More impressive, though, the animators have mastered and made elegant use of light on and in water. Watch the waves shimmer as Moana sees the vision of her ancestors. Notice how Tomatoa’s cave glimmers like he’s a disco ball, the sparkles careening as he dances. My breath caught in my throat when a glowing ray first swam under Moana’s canoe. If I could draw, I thought, if I had a lick of artistic sensibility, what a joy it would be to make a scene that emotionally resonant and delightful to the eye. And if you’re craving a throwback to the classic hand-animated Disney films, Maui’s tattoos serve as his memory and his conscience, and they’re cleverly hand-drawn as they interact with CGI Maui.

Finally, you know I’m not going to talk about this movie without gushing over the songs, written by my boy Lin-Manuel Miranda and South Pacific songwriter Opetaia Foa’i. You can hear them both on the song “We Know the Way,” which is the epic anthem you heard in trailers when you saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year. They’ve crafted a loving, singable, genre-bending series of songs that fit comfortably into the Disney mold but will stick in your ear long after the movie ends. In conclusion, is it too late to make this movie Frozen-big? Because I’ve seen it five times.

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