A few days ago, I saw Moana, Disney’s latest ‘princess’ movie, with my brother and his girlfriend. If you’ve read my previous post on why representation matters, you’ll know that I’m completely enamored with the character of Moana. So much so, in fact, that when my flight home was cancelled today, I dragged my mom to the theater so she could see it too. Two viewings in, I’m now fully prepared to present my promised review of the film, particularly since it hasn’t lost any of its appeal. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
Our story begins with a wizened old voice regaling us with the history of Moana’s people. We learn that thousands of years ago, the goddess Tefiti emerged from the ocean and brought about creation. Tefiti existed as a beautiful island, and at her center was her heart, a stone from which all creation originated. After Tefiti used her powers to create many islands, the demigod Maui stole her heart in the hopes of presenting it as a gift to humanity. However, during his escape from the now ruined island of Tefiti, a great lava monster — Teka — emerged, causing him to lose both the heart and the magical fish hook that gave him his powers.
Of course, it turns out that the voice telling this story is Moana’s feisty Grandma, and her captive audience is a collection of toddlers, almost all of whom start screaming when presented with haunting illustrations of the lava monster. All, of course, except Moana, who is enraptured by tale of Tefiti. This is our first glimpse of Moana’s singular nature. Even as a baby, she is clearly fearless. In fact, when her father enters the classroom to sooth the children, Moana wanders off to the shoreline instead. After happily saving a baby turtle from carnivorous birds, she meets a lifelong friend in the Ocean. Sooner than we’d hope, her father swoops in to save her from its tidal clutches, and we segue into the first musical number.
It’s here that the movie starts to really shine. Aided by a characteristically nimble composition from Lin Manuel-Miranda (as well as Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina), this opening scene is perfectly expositional without being bogged down. We’re introduced to Moana’s island, her village, and her people. We learn that, as the daughter of the chief, she is expected to take up the mantle of leadership one day. We see the collective, communal nature of society on the island of Montunui, and their happy reliance on nature’s bounties (coconuts, anyone?).
Any of this seem familiar? Yes, it’s a real Pocahontas throwback, but unlike that glorious piece of 90’s animation, Moana is thankfully missing one piece: an awkward romantic interest. It’s clear that Moana doesn’t quite fit into the mold designed for her, but that has nothing to do with her taste in men or lack thereof. She loves her people, but while they live happily settled in one place, she’s inexplicably drawn to the sea. That’s what sets her apart. Not an uncomfortable betrothal, not a new and culturally unacceptable love interest, but the struggle between her personal goals and the goals of her people. Only a few minutes in, and when it comes to women’s empowerment, this movie is already off to a great start.
Plus, unlike other Disney princesses — see: Ariel and Jasmine –, Moana doesn’t immediately devolve into defiance for defiance’s sake. Rather, she realistically grapples with questions of expectation and responsibility. Although she clearly longs to journey beyond the confines of her island’s reef, she prepares to take on her responsibilities as future chief without resentment or complaint.
When disaster strikes, however, in the form of widespread coconut blight and lack of fish, Moana hops in a canoe and attempts her first voyage. Standing on a boat, defiantly facing the horizon on its bow, this moment is obviously the perfect time for Moana’s Let It Go moment. Behold: Moana’s coming-of-age anthem How Far I’ll Go (like that song from Frozen, but way, way better).
Of course, powerful singing aside, Moana’s trip is an unmitigated disaster. With no sailing experience and an idiotic chicken as a sidekick, she returns to Montunui both figuratively and literally bruised. Thankfully, for her and for us, her grandmother arrives on the beach to give her some sage advice.
Turns out, Moana’s people used to be voyagers. They crossed the seas on big gorgeous boats that are now hidden in an underground cave. In an delightful and unearthly flashback sequence (strap on your magical realism pants, friends, and prepare to suspend your disbelief), Moana experiences a great voyage of old, and excitedly brings the news of her game-changing discovery to the Village Council.
Of course, this is when more disaster strikes (would it be a Disney movie without crazy amounts of disaster?). Moana’s grandmother has fallen ill. It’s clear she’s going to die. From her sickbed, she presses the heart of Tefiti — which she collected for Moana that long ago day with the turtle and the Ocean — into Moana’s hand and tells her to go off and change the world. Heartbroken, Moana goes. On her way out, shielded by darkness, her mother sees her frantically packing. She helps her gather more supplies and sends her on her way.
I want take a moment to discuss this sequence for a second. Let’s break this down: a young woman decides that she has a responsibility to help people in the way she believes is best. Her grandmother supports her. Her mother supports her. When the male authority figures in her life express doubt in her abilities, the women rise up and support her over and over again. This might not seem revolutionary, but think about it. So often in movies — and Disney movies in particular — women are the villains. Not just any villains either, but insidious ones. They’re emotionally manipulative. They cut each other down. They fume in the face of other women’s success. Yet here we are in Moana. Here we see three generations of women quietly supporting each other. This, my friends, changes the game.
But I digress. Headed off on her quest, Moana begins her search for the demigod Maui. Aided by the Ocean in some of the most gorgeous animations I’ve ever seen, she eventually arrives on the island where Maui has been marooned for the past thousand-odd years. Sadly, Maui turns out to be the worst. In a scene evocative of Robin-Williams-as-Genie in Aladdin, Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. the Rock) spits out lightening fast lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and attempts to abandon Moana on a pile of rocks. While You’re Welcome is a musical delight, as a plot-piece, it mainly made me want to punch Maui in the face. Let’s be real; this song cut so deep because it was so eerily true to life. Maui is that guy in the boardroom, that boy on the playground, that arrogant and self-centered kid on the debate team. Unlike previous Disney films, this trait in Maui was not attractive, and Moana milks his pride for all it’s worth. With each defiant stomp and sly bit of praise, my admiration for Moana grew.
Indeed, throughout the meat of the movie, that admiration only kept growing. Maui and Moana battle pirates and monsters, face literal hellscapes and terrifying storms. They emerge from each trial unscathed, saved by Moana’s tenacity, persistence and smarts. After rescuing Maui’s fish hook, they arrive at Teka’s lair, ready to return the heart of Tefiti.
Of course, it doesn’t work. After being slammed by the lava monster, Maui abandons ship, more concerned with his own wellbeing than the future of the islands and the humanity he once wanted to save.
Moana is distraught. She is in despair: hopeless, downtrodden, and alone. When the spirit of her grandmother appears, amorphous but undeniably real, she breaks down. Who is she anyway?
I can answer that. Moana is not a princess. She’s not a leader merely by birth, but by choice. She is defiant. She is strong. She is tenacious and gritty. She is pretty, but it doesn’t really matter. She is hurt, but she doesn’t really care. She is the spirt of the hundreds of women who came before her. She is the standard bearer of thousands of years of history. She is the one who can save the world. She doesn’t need anyone else to do that.
And Moana does save the world; of course she does. After returning the heart of Tefiti, the world explodes in color. Tefiti, it turns out, was Teka all along. When her heart was stolen, she withered. In her grief, she spread destruction in her wake. Heartless and alone, she spread her pain to the world. When Moana faced her like an equal, and acknowledged who she was — a victim and a survivor, both — she bowed down. She took the support Moana offered, and let herself be lifted up. She let Moana return her heart. When Moana saw her pain, admitted that it was real, acknowledged that it hurt, Tefiti let it go. It didn’t disappear, of course. How could it? It changed though. It grew. In a beautiful piece of symbolism, new life literally emerged from the volcanic ashes. Tefiti was finally at peace.
I could tell you more about the end of the movie, but you can probably imagine it. Moana goes home, is hailed as a hero, and leads her people into a new age of voyaging. To me though, those neatly tied plot-bows don’t matter all that much. They’re not what make Moana great.
Moana is great because it’s a movie about women empowering women. It’s a movie about women empowering themselves. It’s a movie about that girl power we all keep talking about but constantly struggle to portray. It’s a movie about belief and hope and faith and strength. It’s a movie about how the whole is worth much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s the movie I wish I’d had when I was a little girl. It’s the movie I wish I’d had when I wanted a movie with a girl like me. A girl who had never imagined her wedding or her Prince Charming, but who had envisioned all sorts of magical adventures.
Little girls deserve more movies like Moana. They deserve movies that show them how to lift themselves up. They deserve movies that show them how to save the world. Moana is such a great start.
95/100 for beautiful photorealistic animation, hilarious animal sidekicks, supportive family, women lifting up women, the Rock being awesome, and the best frizzy-haired, big-footed, sassy-mouthed hero any little girl could want.
Day 7: January 7, 2016