Everything right and wrong with ‘Moana’

Disney’s new animated feature tells the story of Moana, a beautiful young woman with a fierce love for her heritage, but also for adventure beyond her island.

The story centers around Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) and her journey across the ocean with the egocentric demi-god Maui (played by Dwayne Johnson). They go on their quest to travel across the ocean to restore the stolen heart of the island goddess Te Fiti.

The visual story telling is absolutely iridescent, even for Disney’s high standards. While the celebration of Polynesian culture is moving and a powerful step in the right direction for Disney Animations, there were still moments that the film stayed in it’s formula storytelling.

What made this film captivating is directors Ron Clements’ and John Musker’s attention to detail in their research of Polynesian culture. According to ScreenSlam’s interview with Clements and Musker, Musker stated that they visited several Polynesian islands and that the development team for the film didn’t “just set up a trip that was a boondoggle, that was not a bunch of drinks with little umbrellas in them, but actually talking to people connected to the culture, and getting a deeper sense of that it was all about…what their values were, [and] what they considered to be important.”

Those little accurate details in the movie, such as tribal tattooing/tattoos, traditional dance, clothing and architecture gave the movie a breath of genuine life. Clements and Musker also tried to learn more about the mythology of the culture and encompassed real world mythology into their narrative. However, like with European folklores, some elements of Maui’s tale had to be taken out for a family friendly film, but Clements and Musker did a fantastic job of keeping the core of Maui’s myth in Moana.

Aside from the accuracy and beauty of the film in its cultural representation, the main heroine is irresistibly charming and has so many great attributes in her character and in her design that is positive for young children to see. She doesn’t fit the physical mold of the other princesses. She is shorter, with realistic proportions that fit the physical demands of rowing, climbing and swimming.

Moana carries universal strong values of loving your culture, family and your ancestors. This movie’s center focus in on the platonic love of her roots, her family and herself as she discovers her inner strength. It’s so immensely important for young people to not only see a heroine who is realistic in her design, but also one who is brave and willing to lay everything on the line, not just for romantic love, but also for family and self love.

She gives herself purpose because her actions aren’t centered around finding love, but rather preserving and presenting the love that she has inside of her for audiences to see, which makes her narrative so refreshing. However, with all that being said, there were some issues that I had with the film.

With such a rich folklore and a powerful female protagonist, I was a bit disappointed that Disney was falling back on their old tropes and “special Disney brand formula.”

There were moments in this film where I felt like I was pulling out a “checklist” of tropes and done to death character types/events. There is the crazy, kooky old grandmother character. Check. There is the conservative father who doesn’t let his child explore or do “insert activity they want to do.” He is also a flat character who doesn’t do anything other then serve as the antagonist to Moana’s desires. Check. A sidekick that is loveable, yet narcissistic who comes around at the end to be her friend. Check. There are some movies like Up or Wallie that are so widely unique in their storytelling that I threw my checklist of “what to expect” out the window, because those movies push beyond the tropes and the borders of visual storytelling.

Moana unfortunately could have done better in that regard. The movie fell a little short in originality of characters and events, which is such a shame because all the elements were there: the culture, the folklore and the breathtaking animation. Disney needs to learn how to move away from their formulaic mold and expand beyond.

However, Moana is a step in the right direction for Disney Animation Studios. The directors and animators were willing to go out and actively find other non-European based narratives and explore other folklores. They aren’t assuming or painting a white interpretation, but instead are actively listening and representing. My greatest hope is that Moana will give rise to even more princesses and heroes from different perspectives.

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