A More or Less Spoiler-Free Review of Moana
Moana is a wonderful movie. Imagination, characters, visuals, and everything combined to create a beautiful world with a great story.
Moana is the adventurous daughter of a chief on a Pacific island. Though she longs to hop on a boat and explore the vast expanse of ocean all around her, she reluctantly quashes this rebellious spirit in order to learn how to be a good leader. When life starts dying on the island, it turns out that the world needs an adventurer like Moana to save them all.
No Dead Parents
Disney's rather infamous for the "dead parents as backstory or motivator" trope. It's a powerful move, but one that's been played in many, many Disney films to the point of becoming a cliche. Moana's parents are loving and supportive, even if they don't always understand her. Her dad is a little controlling, but with the best of intentions -- we learn his best friend died in a boat accident, and he doesn't want his daughter sailing for that reason. Also, he has a good point: Moana needs to learn how to lead, rather than go gallivanting off to sea.
Moana's connection with her "village crazy woman" grandmother is sweet. The grandmother is the primary mentor figure and a fantastic, funny character. She helps Moana realize her dreams, but doesn't push her into anything or try to mold her into someone she's not. That, I think, is the main difference between her grandmother and her parents: her grandmother listens to her and empowers her to choose.
Typically in Disney, if the heroine has a single parent, it's a single father with a deceased mother. This often means that the heroine has no female role model or mentor. Even in films where the mother is alive, she is so insignificant as to be a bare blip on the radar -- such as in The Lion King and Frozen.
Moana, by contrast, has a mother and grandmother as mentors, as well as relationships with the other women on her island. Female roles in creating a productive society are clearly demonstrated. The "background" women are proactive, and the mother and grandmother's mentorship is key to shaping Moana's upbringing and personality. When Moana tries to leave on her quest, her mother is the one who shows her unconditional love and support. This elevates her from "existing" to "plays a key role on the heroine's journey."
I mentioned before how Frozen is basically an entire movie centered on deconstructing the "runaway princ/ess" trope. Moana also plays with this trope. Her companion Maui does tease her for being a "princess," although Moana protests that being daughter of a chief is not the same thing. (Later, he does acknowledge the way she defines herself, which is nice to see).
Throughout her childhood, Moana shows her free spirit -- which her parents try to discourage by reminding her of her responsibilities. They aren't tyrannical and her life on the island is not oppressive, but she does long to go out on the ocean.
Later, her desire to voyage coincides with her duty to her community: she has to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti, a goddess with the power of life and creation, to stop her island from dying. This is a little convenient -- or would be, if everyone suddenly had a change of heart after years of trying to convince her to stay. Instead, she has to slip away at night without her father's knowledge.
So Maui's Pretty Cool
Maui, demigod of the wind and sea, has been imprisoned on a tiny island ever since stealing the heart of Te Fiti. It's Moana's mission to find him and get him to return it. He needs to take responsibility for his screw-up and try to fix it -- overall, a great message to send to kids.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson voices Maui, and I got a chuckle out of the "It's Maui time!" reference. He gives the character a lot of nuance. Maui is a braggadocious, selfish twit when first we meet him, but underneath the bluster is a good person with surprising depths.
There are a couple of lines that also made me perk up. During his song about being a demi-god, he sings, "I'm just an ordinary demi-guy." This is a play on "demi-god," but also a hint to the possibility of Maui being genderqueer. Later, Maui corrects himself when he says he's the "hero of man." He adds, "and women," and then further corrects himself with, "All. Hero of all" and "it's not really a boy-girl thing for me."
His insistence on adding women helps knock down the sexism ingrained in language, where "mankind" is said for "humankind" and "man" is meant to stand for all humans regardless of sex and gender.
Furthermore, his second correction to "all" rather than "both" is an important acknowledgment that doesn't assume just two genders. "It's not just a boy-girl thing for me" supports this. Language, even when it includes women, often assumes a gender binary. Many cultures have acknowledged multiple genders, as modern society does today.
Also, you could read "demi-guy" and "It's not just a boy-girl thing for me" as personal statements, hints to Maui having a fluid or nonbinary gender identity. He's a shapeshifter, so it would also make sense that gender would be more fluid for him if he can change his body at will. Plus, one of his preferred forms is a giant hawk. Male hawks are 1/3 the size of the female, so it's plausible that his hawk form is female -- as that would be the logical, more badass choice.
Speaking of Maui, the character design is amazingly intricate. First there are his tattoos, which move and "speak" to him. Then there's his fish hook, which itself is beautifully designed. What's more impressive, though, is the fact that every one of his shapeshifted forms has a fish hook symbol on it somewhere. The level of detail and consistency maintained throughout is just...woah.
Yes, Maui is a Big Guy
I read a review that blasted Maui for being "an obese stereotype." The writer argued that the creators were playing to the stereotype of Pacific Islanders being fat, big, or obese.
I can see the concern there...while also acknowledging the anti-fat bias in the statement. Watching the movie, I didn't see Maui as obese; he is big, but he appears built that way. He's got some body fat, but he's not obese as in unhealthy. Some guys are just big.
I also think that giving him this body type was a very deliberate move on the part of Disney. All Disney dudes are musclebound hunks: archetypes of male beauty, just as all Disney princesses fit the feminine beauty standards of slim, graceful, and long-haired. Even Aladdin, who's on the skinny side, is ripped.
Disney cast Dwayne Johnson -- a famous musclebound hunk who was voted the Sexist Man Alive this year -- to play Maui. It would have been very easy to model the character on the voice actor, especially since Dwayne Johnson apparently epitomizes male beauty and sexiness.
They chose to represent a different body type for a male hero instead. For once. I think the only other bigger dude of Disney is Pacha from The Emperor's New Groove. Pacha is a middle-aged, fatherly everyman figure, while Maui is a powerful, heroic demi-god. Since there also were other men of varying body types represented on Moana's island, I also don't think the assessment of Maui as a fat racial stereotype is necessarily fair.
Many, Many Pretty things
Moana is visually and aurally stunning. The soundtrack starts off with this giant "WHAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM" musical cue that you associate with deep oceans. Yes. I am all about that bass. The music stayed amazing throughout. "You're Welcome" is particularly catchy, a sort of Michael Buble/classic 40's big band meets Polynesian-inspired rhythm with a rap break. Moana's songs are uplifting, and the music at the climax gave it that emotional clincher that made it a moment to hold your breath.
I think this one also makes it onto the "Top 5 Disney movies never to ever watch while stoned" list. Especially not the villain song. Nope. Nooooope.
It's harder to describe the visuals, except that the animation is incredibly detailed and beautiful -- and that you really, really, reallllllllyyyyyyy want to see Moana in theaters.
The Disney Short
This short deserves its own review. All I'll say is that it is hands-down the best Disney short I've seen in a while. Perhaps ever. It's also worth going to the movie just to catch the short at the beginning.
Oh and FYI
There's a scene after the credits, so make sure you stay to the end of the movie.