Let’s set the stage here. Moana may not have Disney’s best script. It doesn’t have the funniest dialogue nor does it contain the most epic songs that the average audience are used to from the media conglomerate. But make no mistake, Moana is the most important, complex, and richly empowering movies ever put out from the studio. Not only has Moana continued on the successful path set by Princess and the Frog (what is considered the beginning of the modern Disney Renaissance), but it is now a trailblazer bringing forth a positive message and forward thinking introspective ideals. And to be blatantly honest: it’s about damn time.
Let’s dive into this shall we?
Part of Disney’s magic since the creation of Walt Disney Studios in 1939 is they have crafted two important keys of successful storytelling. First is the creating the perfect team for each project. In Moana‘s case we have Ron Clements and John Musker (Co-Directors and Screenwriters) whose claim to fame are just some small indie movies such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Princess and the Frog. Ok, so they’re kind of a big deal. Plus to top it all off, the movie is produced by John Lasseter who is the main guy behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Cars, Tangled, Frozen, Wreck it Ralph, Princess and the Frog and every other great Disney movies we have in the modern era. There’s a reason why he’s the main show runner at Walt Disney Studios nowadays. He is a cinematic gift from God we do not deserve (insert Pain and Panic saying “we are worms!”).
Secondly, the studio had to learn to evolve with the times. Since the 2000’s with the internet leading the way, the world became interconnected and changed more towards understanding individual perspectives. This created a demand to move away from the common damsel-in-distress-turn-her-into-a-princess scenario and instead move slowly into a direction that affirms and broadens story lines, especially ones centered around the female gender. Luckily, Disney was up to the task! We saw glimpses of this in Tangled (spoilers: she cuts her own hair to save Flynn) and we definitely watched it in Frozen (spoilers: Anna heroically saves her sister Elsa sacrificing her own life by letting her heart freeze over). But Moana takes it a step…two step…ten steps…ok like 100 steps forward.
After a supernatural experience with the ocean, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is chosen at a young age to fulfill a prophecy. With her ancestral roots leading the way, she navigates through the sea to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) so that he can help defeat the lava demon Te Ka and save her village and people.
(The next three paragraphs contain spoilers. Continue at your own risk)
There are a few groundbreaking concepts happening synonymously throughout the story. A theme established at the very beginning of the film was Moana is being groomed as a leader by her father so that she make take his place as the village leader. There is a scene in which her father brings her up to the top of the island of Montenui where her village resides, and shows her a stone altar in which each village leader has placed a stone upon whenever they take over. It is in this scene we hear a line that has never been uttered in cinema history to a female character. Moana’s father assures her “my father, and his father, and his father before him have put their stone here and someday you will too.” What’s even more revolutionary about this theme is that it wasn’t a controversial subject. There was no outcry in the village. In fact, the film eludes to that it was well accepted, welcomed, and normal idea for a woman to be the next leader.
Another significant theme is the story arc of Moana’s relationship with her Grandmother. I won’t give too much away about this specific subplot, but in the last half of the movie Moana’s Grandmother encourages a distraught Moana and there is this beautiful transition of the older generation lifting up the newer generation to go further. It is truly touching to watch.
The primary message however is Moana finding out who she is. In the first half of the film it is assumed that Moana needs Maui to help restore life back to the islands. She first finds him through amateur navigation, helps retrieve his lost fish hook which allows him to shape shift, and then the two voyage across the ocean so that Maui can defeat the Lava Demon Te Ka and save the day. Everything is going according fairy tale plan. But in the second half everything shifts, and it is no longer about Maui being the great hero, but it is Moana. It’s no longer just about her journey across uncharted waters, but for our heroine she has to journey into her past and bring forth her identity. It is when she recognizes who she is that she gains the wisdom of how to “defeat” Te Ka.
Like I mentioned before, some factors in Moana were not at its strongest. There’s a few disconnects in plot where a handful of smaller story lines ended abruptly leaving more desired. Also a couple of the songs were not my favorite from the grammy-winning music imagineers. Similarly, some of the comic relief and jokes went either way. Some hit home, others were more remedial and average. But at the end of the day, that wasn’t what the studio was trying to accomplish. Make no mistake, Moana is a very agenda-driven film. But it contains messages that we need today and for our daughters to hear. This film gives permission to young girls that they can be both the princess and the hero or they can save a village and save themselves. I am willing to forgive the not-so-best minute details and flaws to make way for a powerful pioneer of a movie that resets the standards and redefines a normal Princess fairytale.
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