I saw Frozen really late, when there were already lots of little girls in blue dresses and ‘Let it Go’ had become almost a parody of itself. I really loved it though, and having watched it again on Christmas Day I still think it’s a solid and good Disney that got over-analysed because all the parent’s wanted their daughters to like Anna best and all the children like Elsa best. I still think it’s cos she gets groovy ice powers and can produce sentient life and doesn’t have to marry the smelly moose guy but THAT’S NOT WHY WE ARE HERE.
We are here to talk about Moana. When I heard about it on my regular film podcast, I thought, this time I will not be late to the party, so I took myself STRAIGHT off to see it nice and early. There was me and two others in the cinema on a Monday 6pm showing just before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. Disney, you have not smashed it this hard for me since my Granny took me to see Aladdin in the early 90’s and then I got the cassette tape for Christmas and played it until it wore thin. I learnt the songs from Frozen so I could sing them to my 5 year old niece, the Moana songs I learnt for me, accidentally, because I can’t stop listening the soundtrack.
So why is Moana so good? Well the music is an integral part of it. The only film I ever walked out of was Lilo & Stitch because me and my friend were all WHERE ARE THE SONGS DISNEY? Lin-Manuel Miranda, the utter genius behind Hamilton*, wrote Moana before he wrote Hamilton. It has all the perfection of an Alan Menken Disney (catchy on the first listen and then with you for always) but with that innovative edge, the lyrical play, the time signature shifts, that is so unique to Miranda’s work with Hamilton. So we’ve got a gold standard soundtrack – tick.
Next source material, plenty has already been written on the refreshing and respectful use of another culture’s stories in Moana, and they nailed all the ancient South Polynesian cultural details by all accounts so props for that – but the key thing for me is that Moana’s character is invention. They could have made a film about Maui, the demi-god – perfectly voiced (and sung) by Dwayne Johnson- he can transform with his magical fishhook and is mischievous and hilarious – there could have been a whole movie about him getting his hook back – but they didn’t. They cleverly realised that Maui as part sidekick / part antagonist makes a much better tale. So a refreshing new tale with a brilliant protagonist to take us through – tick.
An aside on Moana as a character, stunningly performed by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, I will only briefly nod to the over-excited publicity given to Moana being a different shape to other Disney princesses, I think that part is irrelevant, it’s the personality that is interesting. I didn’t care that Merida in Brave had mad hair, I cared because she was a feisty, fully formed person with an opinion. I am not bored by Cinderella because she has a tiny waist, but because she is two dimensional and dull, thank the gods for the mice. We meet Moana in a montage, here is a little girl who is demonstrably kind to animals, brave and cheerful and fearless, character established. The scene where Moana meets the Ocean (who is a sentient character) is not only visually stunning but utterly joyful, you fall in love with this girl immediately. We then watch her grow over a song (in time honoured montage fashion) into a young woman, who is curious and capable, loves food and is getting pretty good at dancing. Moana is to be Chief, no asides about sons or how unusual that a woman should be chief. She just IS going to be Chief, a line in a song and we’ve accepted it. The way here was paved by Brave and Frozen, Disney has got to the stage where women lead they don’t just marry leaders, or have to marry leaders to lead appropriately. They can do it on their own. It seems small but seriously, that is a BIG STEP. The other big revelation is that there is not a hint of love interest, this is a story about a young woman discovering her place in the world, just like Brave, just like Frozen but this time we don’t even have to think about Moana and marriage, or even her sexuality because it’s not mentioned or part of the story. And to that I say HOORAY! And even better, she spends a substantial part of the film alone with a male character and SPOILER they don’t fall for each other or have any ‘moments’ or anything. Again, this seems small, but think about it, it’s a BIG STEP! One of my absolute favourite bits was when a villager was lamenting the leaky roof he couldn’t fix and Moana shimmies down from the ceiling and briskly says she has fixed the problem. This was presented with no ceremony or fanfare, no ‘what a tomboy’ undertone, just a throwaway. YES!
So back to why it’s great – the message. Disney now makes message films, at the end of the day we want a journey, ideally for the main character, or even two, and a lesson learnt. What’s great here is that it’s the messages aren’t black and white message. Moana’s village is lovely, she loves it there and there is a proper acknowledgment that you can have a great time at home, as Moana sings “Everyone has a role on this island maybe I can roll with mine?” but she has a need inside her, a niggle and a longing to explore and she needs to respond to that inner battle. For Moana it is the sea, the call of the horizon. For anyone who has ever had a true longing to try something or achieve something, especially in the face of doubt or even of common sense, the song ‘How Far I’ll Go’ will resonate. That feeling of being incomplete. And I think for children and teenagers, it will have the effect that Aladdin’s song had on me as he pulls back his curtain to look at Agrabah and sings “they’ll find out there’s so much more to me”’, to make them want to go out and grab the world with both hands, without really being sure why. At least I hope so! All the messages in Moana are shades of grey, Moana’s father wants her to settle on the island, not because of tradition or stuffiness but because of lessons he learnt, the fear he has and he must face external forces at work as well as Moana’s desires to leave. Moana’s grandmother imparts wisdom (and some great dancing skills) to Moana, but she is not considered wise, more of a kook, by everyone else.
Light relief sidekicks are a long held stable of Disney. Moana has a chicken sidekick and a pig sidekick. I personally wanted more of her pig friend as well, but Heihei the chicken did very well at the slapstick. Moana and Maui go on wonderful adventures, and there are numerous delights, which I will let you enjoy for yourself, including meeting a baddie that rivals Ursula the Sea-witch for having the best Disney ‘big bad’ song and some hilariously scary coconuts. And it is of course beautifully animated, lovely use of Maui’s tattoos and with some genuine scares that justify the PG rating, brilliant stuff.
So you’ve got all the ingredients, there and with Disney’s pixie dust you are away, But for me personally, Moana was so good because when the story reaches the climax, the ‘what will the hero(ine) do now when all hope is lost’ moment, there was just her to sort it. Yes, she seemingly has support (The “I chose the right tattoo” moment made me cry) but depending on your beliefs, I think she finds her way and her strength on her own, she is alone at that moment and she chooses to continue. She finds her place in the world and she finds the strength to fit everything together and as her defiant refrain becomes “That come what may, I know the way” you are in awe. Elsa’s “Let It Go” is often held up as a moment of power, of an anthem of freedom, but not 15 mins later she’s all terrified again, because Elsa’s moment of power comes too early without her knowing all the facts. With Moana, she realises everything at just the right time, just when she needs to and she has the strength to give that wisdom to another at Te Fiti “This is not who you are. You know who you are” and then builds on that climactic triumph to lead and inspire her whole village. It’s beautiful stuff.
And I hope there’s an 11 year old out there who sees Moana and downloads the soundtrack (RIP cassette tapes) and listens to it on repeat, without quite knowing why it’s so wonderful, but feeling a burst of power and confidence inside them. And I am so happy in the knowledge that the little girls and boys who go to see it, who at the moment just laugh at the chicken and need to sit on their Mum or Dad’s knee for the lava monster bit, are actually getting a Disney with all the right stuff. That it’s vital to follow your dreams and just as important to understand how that following of your dreams can benefit those around you, that you have to be able to look after yourself, but you’ll find that strength by learning from others. That it is not destiny or beauty that carry you forward but your body and your mind and your courage. And stories matter, keep telling them and (to paraphrase The Doctor) make yours a good one.
* If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack (or kneecapped for a ticket if you are in New York) I would highly recommend it. Start with My Shot and go from there. While I am gushing, if you are a musical fan check out Lin-Manuel’s surprise of his new bride at his wedding – JOY.