Moana first published by EyeforFilm
“If you’re wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
These words, addressed by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to 16-year-old islander Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), catch out not just the chieftain’s teen daughter, but also the whole Disney machine, in self-conscious denial. Tomboyish, resourceful and fearless Moana may end up rescuing the hypermasculine Maui as much as – if not more than – he ever rescues her, and may save the South Pacific archipelago from annihilation almost single-handedly, but nonetheless she comes from a long line of Disney heroines. Moana’s dress may be in local Polynesian style, her sidekick may be a dumb, rock-eating chicken (and occasionally a piglet), but like Disney’s many other princesses, Moana must endure a series of trials before acceding to the throne. She may, gratifyingly, neither seek nor acquire a Prince Charming, and she may, like the titular heroine of directors Ron Clement and John Musker’s previous animated Disney feature The Princess and the Frog (2009), not be Caucasian, but nonetheless Moana conforms to type as much as she deviates from it.
That is indeed Moana’s paradox: having to shoulder the long history of Disney narrative even as she tries, like many a rebellious adolescent, both to “cross that line” which bounds her inheritance, and to leave her dying island for fresh – if forbidden – waters. It is a paradox that Jared Bush’s screenplay resolves by having her defy one tradition – the veto imposed by her overprotective father (Temuera Morrison) on seafaring – only to embrace an alternative tradition furnished by her grandmother (Rachel House), according to which the ocean is both the friend and the natural habitat of Motunui Island’s population of settlers. Yet another tradition attributes the environmental degradation (topicality alert!) currently plaguing the island to the mythological theft by shape-shifting trickster Maui of creator goddess Te Fiti’s heart stone, and so Moana’s quest will involve recruiting Maui, retrieving from hoard-happy monster Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) the divine hook which grants Maui his magical powers of transformation, and defeating the volcanic demon Tala before restoring both the heart stone to Te Fiti and fertility to all of Polynesia.
Moana is propelled into her waterborne adventures by the contradictions in these different traditions, which, if her people and her bloodline are to survive, she must reconcile in much the same way that she reembodies the different versions of the Disney princess. So here innovation is just a reordering of history, and the future is just a tweaked version of the past. This represents progress of a kind that is slow, and comes with a deeply conservative nature – which is of course exactly what we have come to expect, perhaps even to desire, from the House of Mouse.
This two-way traffic between future and past, between venturing out and returning to a restored home, receives its ultimate incarnation in Maui himself, beautifully realised (as is everyone here) in state-of-the-art (even ahead-of-the-curve) computer-generated 3D animation, but sporting all over his body mobile tattoos that serve as an equal expression of his character – and that have been rendered with traditional 2D hand-drawn techniques. Maui’s, Moana’s, even Tala’s search for identity and for a destiny connected with, but not wholly defined by, their accessories (the hook, the stone, the chicken) is also, of course, a chronicle of Disney – a studio that likes equally to impart shifting values and to purvey toys and tie-ins.
The truth is, as much as Disney wants to inspire its young viewers, it also knows what sells. At one point during their canoe voyage, Maui tells Moana: “If you start singing, I’m going to throw up.” Yet it’s already too late by the time Maui delivers this knowing deconstruction of Disney convention. The genie is by now completely out of the bottle, as Moana has already sung (and reprised) her big belter How Far I’ll Go (the Let It Go of the South Pacific), and even Maui has already introduced himself with the hilariously passive-aggressive number You’re Welcome. Sure there are fewer songs here than in your typical Disney Princess picture, but there are still enough to make Maui’s line yet another piece of tail-chasing self-reflexive critique. Maui may be hungry when Moana finds him on his desert island, he may even threaten to devour Moana’s chicken – but in expressing his disgust for the very Disney-style warbling in which he himself engages, he is certainly getting to eat the cake that he also has.
That is Moana in a nutshell (or at least in a sea conch): smart about what it does, and very easy on the eye, but at base the very Disney princess movie that it half-heartedly resists being – until, at least, its full heart is restored.
© Anton Bitel