Reel Talk

Moana Is a Cinematic Anti-Depressant

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I don’t talk about it nearly enough on here (mainly because I have a ridiculous project planned for next year) but I really like Disney. There’s obviously some problems with the film, especially their issues with gender roles, but a lot of that can be kind of excused by the time periods that they were made. And taking all of that aside, Disney is pretty much the experts at delivering all-ages stories that impart lessons and fulfill the role that fables once had for people. Kind of like my appreciation for James Bond films, I don’t really think that there are any truly bad Disney flicks. They all have something to appreciate in them. So of course I’m going to be into any Disney movie that gets announced, and I was especially excited about their most recent release, Moana. Disney has been on a bit of a hot-streak lately delivering some really great and surprisingly nuanced movies, but even taking that aside there was a lot going for this movie. It featured songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is pretty much the best, and represents Disney taking another stab at telling stories that speak to people other than white folks, which is always to be applauded. Plus I heard that the film was pretty great too, and I’m happy to report that that assessment was very correct.

The film follows a young Polynesian woman named Moana who is the daughter of the chief of her island. Life is pretty simple on the island, just doing the same things that they’ve done forever, which is really boring her. She dreams of leaving her island, and venturing out beyond the reef that surrounds the island, but her over-bearing parents refuse. And gradually they start to suppress her adventurous ways and get her to accept her life as a civil servant. But all of that changes when the island suddenly starts to suffer from some unknown source. There are no longer any fish around the island and all of their crops are dying, plunging the island into uncertainty.  The only person who has an idea is Moana’s grandmother, who tells her that it’s because the demi-god Maui stole a small magical stone from the goddess Te Fiti, and that action is going to destroy the world. The grandmother just so happens to have the stone, and tells Moana that she should take a boat, leave the island, and go sail to Maui to make him help her. So Moana breaks her promise to her parents, finds a hidden ship that her people have kept secret for generations, and starts to sail out to the island that Maui was imprisoned on. So Moana hits the seas and starts sailing towards Maui, being helped by the ocean itself, which is sentient and has taken an interest in her ever since she was a little girl and helped a small turtle make it to the water, thus earning some favors from the sea.

And after several trials and tribulations Moana finally gets to the island of Maui, and we’re introduced to the demi-god Maui, a braggadocios shape-shifter who lives for getting adulation from humans, and who has been rapped on an island for a hundred years. He initially has no interest in helping Moana, primarily because when he stole the magical stone and was banished to this island he lost his magical fish-hook that’s the source of all of his powers. But after Moana does everything she can to convince him, and the ocean lends a hand, Maui agrees to help, as long as they get his fish-hook first. So the two set sail, dealing with a race of goofy coconut warriors before getting to a subterranean world of monsters were they deal with a glam-rock crab who has stolen Maui’s hook. The two fight the crab and outsmart him though, and get Maui’s hook back, giving him his powers and confidence. And along the way Moana and Maui have gained a real friendship, and have really grown as people. Which makes it that much more difficult when they get to the island of Te Fiti and end up coming across a being of pure lava that has taken over the island and they’re stretched to the limit. But after a brief crisis the two pull it together and save the day, just like you would imagine, and Moana returns home to her island to lead her people into a brave new world of leaving the island and exploring like their ancestors did.

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This movie was just an incredibly delightful experience. Just about everything in it worked for me on a fundamental level, and I spent almost the entire film with a grin plastered on my face. It was a beautifully animated film with some stellar voicework and songs that I really could see going down as all time greats. There was no “Let It Go” to be beaten to death, but they had a timeless quality about them that really worked for me. Plus we got a ridiculous David Bowie-esque song from a bedazzled crag voiced by Jemaine Clement, which is pretty fantastic. But basically everyone else in the movie delivered some incredibly voice acting, which really helped shape the film. I’m not familiar with Auli’i Cravalho but she was stellar as Moana, giving the character a sass and intelligence that really worked fantastically. She was capable, fun, and determined, which I feel could easily have come across as almost a Mary Sue, but she was delightful. And, as per usual, Dwayne the Rock Johnson was a hoot. He expertly delivered the cocky swagger that Maui had, but when it came time to let some emotion into the film he handled it wonderfully.

There was just a lot to love about this film. And one of the things that I loved most about it was the fact that while it was incredibly familiar, using a lot of the standard Disney tropes, it also brought us to a unique world and told a familiar story in a different way. The movie dealt with a lot of topics that Disney loves to examine, such as duty, dealing with tradition versus change, and fighting against destiny. But it took those tropes and put them in the Polynesian setting, which hasn’t really been used. Lilo and Stitch attempted to give the culture justice, but that movie is a little strange and was more sci-fi than fable. This film took a beautiful culture that really isn’t portrayed enough and gave us a competent woman of color saving the day by trying to get her people to change and progress. Which is pretty fantastic. So if the horribleness of the world has you down you could do worse than check out Moana, because I can almost guarantee that you’ll leave happy and a little more optimistic about the world.

Moana was written by Jared Bush, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016.

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