I will never not be late for something that’s culturally relevant, but this one I was within a few weeks at least. I knew I would see Moana before it got out of theaters, I just needed the money. Finally, last night, Sam took me to see it. It made for a fun night, and we almost had the theater all to ourselves (I can’t help but talk during a movie, so it helps when people aren’t there). Anytime Disney releases something new that’s animated, it automatically goes on my “must see” list, and I was curious to see how the movie stacked up against other recent successes. There was a lot of hype for Moana, and a million ways it could have gone wrong. So how did it do?
We’re sailing onto the stormy waters of the Spoiler-ic Ocean, so abandon ship or hold tight to the mast if you don’t care (I’m such an amazing writer sometimes I scare myself).
Sink or Swim
When it comes to reviewing things, I’ve come up with a formula. Talk about what they did right, then hit on what they did wrong, or vice versa. But coming up with things I didn’t like about Moana was tough. There were things I would have done differently if I were sitting in the Captain’s chair – a few minor things I might have changed given the chance.
First, and perhaps most insignificant, I think I would have preferred a different mascot. I know, it’s a small complaint – either animal work for the purposes of the film – but Hei Hei doesn’t add as much as a character like Pua could have. Pua is already cute, and could have had an arc since he goes out with Moana when she wrecks the first ship. He’s afraid of water and then slowly has to overcome his fear by the end of the film. I think that would have been more fun to watch than Hei Hei, although he did have some funny moments. The relationship with Maui would have been practically the same since they’re both just food to him. Hei Hei wasn’t annoying, but he was there only for comic relief. Pua could have filled that role while also being a contributing character with his own arc. I thought that was a wasted opportunity.
I also thought Maui’s arc comes up a little short. The mark of a good Disney film these days are the ones that can really hurt me. I need something that makes me cry, or at least tear up with emotion either from something really beautiful or sad (Up would be a great example). So I was always waiting for the moments to have more weight, and some of them do, but the ones that have to do with Maui fall a little short. It’s predictable.
And that’s fine for a kids movie, I don’t begrudge it for that, but just a few more scenes with Maui would have been nice, especially after he leaves with the broken hook. Moana has a dark night of the soul with the spirit of her grandmother, but we don’t see Maui again until he shows up in the nick of time to save Moana. Then, we see him after the change. Suddenly, he’s selfless and courageous in the face of sacrifice, and has respect for Moana. But I want to see that decision, I want to see the character dealing with that choice, because he certainly doesn’t leave her that way. There’s no indication he would return, and nothing about their last exchange leads the audience to believe he’ll come back. Of course, he will, but without those tendon scenes to connect the plot tissue, it felt strange. I thought that was important for his character arc, and although we assume it happens, the audience doesn’t get to see it.
Moana’s father had a similar problem for me. That was a main obstacle for Moana when she’s trying to leave – her first antagonistic element of the story. I would have liked a scene with them dealing with the island after she’s left. Things are dying and people are scared, and they don’t know where their daughter is and if she’s coming back. He can confront his wife about letting their daughter go, and there he would have a chance to maybe change his mind about Moana and her safety. Not only would we be reminded of the stakes, we would also be ready for his change in personality when she finally did make it home. The film wasn’t all that long, just a few more scenes would have really made the movie perfect. Granted, when your biggest problem with a movie is that you want more, that tends to be a good sign.
I might have been interested to see more monsters, maybe in the monster world. I enjoyed their design and thought they were pretty interesting. But what the Hell was that thing in the mask with the arms? That thing scared the Christ right out of me. I was gripping Sam’s arm, it’s so gross looking!
Even stacking all of those things together is small change compared to the rest of the film. The characters are vibrant and memorable, each of them having an arc and someplace to go, even the main antagonist had an arc. There’s a great twist I didn’t get until the exact moment I was supposed to get it, and I love when a movie can pull that off. It really makes the weight of something hit harder when you can’t call it before it’s time.
Moana really shines here as a character. Initially, I was concerned that she would be just another Princess character to add to the Disney roster. For this generation, the film comes at the perfect time – Moana is an excellent feminist and cultural role model. I was surprised how easy it was for her tribe to accept her as their Chief, or how ready they are for her to take the title later from her father. There’s nothing about only sons having power, or her father wishing he had a son to pass his legacy on too. They don’t give her a special title or anything, she’s just gonna be chief one day and everyone is totally okay with that. That’s the kind of forward thinking I like to see.
I had thought that her wanderlust might also be an issue. Wanting to go beyond boundaries and explore is a trait that’s easily handed to her kind of character without a lot of thought, and it may not make sense for the rest of the story. However, her desire to escape her island and see the world has plot-wide consequences and relevance to her culture as well as her character. Coming from a long line of voyagers means I was rooting for her to escape and see things, rather than her just wanting to escape because that’s what Princesses are supposed to want. It was refreshing, and it helped the audience share her values of wanting to explore Moana’s world and see what was beyond the next horizon.
The songs are beautiful. Shiny might be the weakest song, since being good in an album of great songs makes you the weakest link. But it’s still a good song, and the other ones are amazing and heartfelt. Auli’I Carvalho makes a powerful debut with a massive voice, and even Dwayne Johnson makes do with his own song. I still have Where You Are and We Know the Way stuck in my head, which is the only way I know whether or not a song is good and something I’ll listen to later. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote many of the songs and even lends his own voice, but it’s not just a name drop since Hamilton. He wrote some wonderful pieces that give the film it’s heart, and more than ever, I see his name and know that guy is going places. He’s going to be a music legend someday, just you wait (another amazing joke).
The elephant seal in the room was whether Moana would improve on Disney’s diversity. Disney came under some scrutiny after Frozen for adding yet another white princess to the mix, and people were starting to get tired of hearing the same stories from the company over again. But what could have been pandering to the fans instead feels alive and full of soul. Maybe Moana was just to please the fans, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t take the production seriously. Disney proves that despite people’s misgivings before, they’re still very capable of telling different and diverse stories from the around the world. The lore is interesting and new, lending itself to future stories. The animation was perhaps the best for this year, and the year just started. Hair and water physics are fun to watch just on their own, but the world they built and how beautiful everything looks is just serene. A movie that takes place primarily on open water might have run into some problems not having enough to show the audience, but Moana makes do, and every frame is something out of a painting. Really great job there.
How Far You’ll Go
Expect a Moana 2 very shortly – this movie will easily nail a sequel. There’s so many threads they can pursue and stories left to tell in this world. What kind of place will Moana settle with her family now? What of Maui? Will he accompany them, or have his own journey? What kind of other islands are out there? What about the world of monsters? Each of those questions is another film in itself, so expect to see another one very soon, which I will eagerly await.
In the meantime, catch Moana before it’s totally out of theaters and get the songs stuck in your head, just like me. I give it eight coconut considerations out of ten.