A while back I reviewed a trailer for a little movie called Moana. I was worried about the lack of early advertising the movie was getting—I hoped that the hype among my own age group and demographic would translate to ticket sales, so that Disney couldn’t use a less-than-successful premiere to justify avoiding nonwhite Princess stories for another decade.
Turns out I needn’t have worried—Moana opened this weekend to a phenomenal box office take, only barely failing to unseat Frozen as the #1 Thanksgiving animated film opening of all time, and I’m honestly pinching pennies in the hope of seeing it again soon. To me, it was a sweet, empowering, and well-made movie; however, some native Polynesian critics felt that it played too fast and loose with their culture. Let’s get into it after the jump!
Spoilers for everything, by the way!
We start with a bit of a history lesson for our universe: once upon a time, the goddess Te Fiti brought life to the oceans, and when she was done, she went to sleep. The mischievous demigod Maui snuck up on her as she slept, and stole her Heart—the source of her life-giving magic—with the intention of gifting that power to humanity. However, upon stealing the Heart, Maui was set upon by the lava monster Te Kaa, and lost the Heart in the ocean. Without her Heart to bring life to the world, a blight began to spread across the ocean.
Enter Moana, the daughter of the chief of the island of Mota Nui. She has been raised since birth to lead her village when she is old enough, but she longs to explore the open seas. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, her grandmother has the Heart—discovered when Moana was young, and safeguarded until her granddaughter was old enough to claim her role as its chosen protector. When the blight reaches Mota Nui, Moana’s grandmother passes the Heart onto her, and Moana runs away to find Maui and force him to return the Heart to Te Fiti.
With her connection to the Heart to protect her, she tracks down Maui, and through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, the two of them finally make their way to Te Fiti. However, Maui’s straightforward demigod offense is not enough to get them past Te Kaa. It’s up to Moana to think her way past the lava creature, and more, to realize that Te Kaa is not an enemy after all. Rather, Te Kaa is Te Fiti, corrupted by the loss of her Heart and warped into a violent creature. By approaching Te Kaa without fear and returning the Heart, Moana is able to restore Te Fiti to her original splendor and undo the blight that has been poisoning the seas. Moana returns home victorious, bringing not only peace and prosperity, but also the voyaging, wayfinding culture her village had forgotten when it became dangerous to travel beyond their island’s reef.
I honestly loved this movie. Like I said at the beginning, I’m combing through my loose change and my budget to see if I can justify the cost of seeing it again, it was just that enjoyable. It brought me to tears multiple times, both sad and happy, through both the story and the gorgeous music. The vocal talent was off the charts great—from newcomer Auli’i Cravalho’s beautiful, pure Princess-worthy tones to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s bright comedic tone. (Who knew the guy could carry a tune?) The sharp-eared among us will also catch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s distinctive tenor during “We Know the Way”, as well as rapping during the credits’ reprise of “You’re Welcome”. The animation was beautiful, with the water, weather, and especially the sand rendered so masterfully as to be nearly lifelike. It also disproved the Frozen animators’ shitty argument that women are harder to animate, as the women of the movie had a wide variety of body diversity (albeit still not as much as the men) and didn’t look like carbon copies of each other, gasp.
The movie also took the classic Disney route of throwing in Easter eggs that adults were more likely to catch onto. The most notable of these is the chase/fight scene between Moana and Maui on their small boat, and the huge pirate ships of the Kakamora coconut monsters, which is an obvious (and hilarious) shoutout to another excellently feminist movie, Mad Max: Fury Road. Moana’s insistent and increasingly angry repetition of the lines her grandmother told her to say to Maui once she found him seem to be a clear callback to a certain revenge-driven Spaniard, name of Inigo Montoya. And the writers weren’t above calling out their own bosses, poking fun at the idea of what makes a girl a princess (a title that Moana rejects). “You’re wearing a skirt and have an animal sidekick,” Maui points out to her. “Seems like a princess to me.”
In terms of Disney princess feminism, Moana seems like the logical end point of a very long journey. Like Elsa, she is heir to her respective throne, and never has to defend herself from any kind of institutionalized sexism. Even Maui, despite his initial disdain, never reduces her to her gender; it’s “but you’re just a human” rather than “you’re just a girl”. And in terms of romantic entanglements, the movie shot past Princess “I’ll be shooting for my own hand” Merida and Princess “whoops I have bad taste in men, but I love my sister more” Anna to a story that doesn’t have the slightest whisper of a love interest. And while in the overall scheme of things, girls and women of color are less likely to be given fairy tale-esque romances and to be treated like, well, a princess, this isn’t historically the case for Disney, as Mulan, Pocahontas, Tiana, and Jasmine all do have love interests. It was refreshing to have a story about a girl that was purely an archetypal hero’s journey, untarnished by sexism or an unnecessary romantic subplot.
On the surface, it seems like Disney went through a lot of work to get the cultural representation in Moana right. While the directors were still white, the movie was co-written and scored by people of native Polynesian ancestry, and the credits thanked eleven separate expert cultural consultants from different Polynesian islands for their work on the film. By and large, the issues that have cropped up (here are some good threads to check out) seem like endemic Disney problems rather than issues specific to this particular movie. The major critique I’ve seen is that the creators took the wide variety of Pacific Islander cultures and smushed them into one Disney-friendly, vaguely Polynesian flavor, and I definitely give them that. This is something Disney does to almost every culture it portrays in its movies, from the classic Princess movies on through the Disney Renaissance—most of their movies are a handwave at a huge chunk of a map—but it’s particularly bad to do this to cultures or groups that have been historically marginalized. It hurts more to have that mushed togetherness happen to groups who don’t have a realistic representation of their culture elsewhere in pop culture. The other critique is one I’ve also seen of the Norse deities in the Marvel universe—to many Pacific Islander people, Maui is a pivotal figure in their history as well as a demigod, and there’s something demeaning about reinventing him as a cocky cartoon sidekick. While no movie is perfect, in the less-than-a-week that it’s been out, it’s become apparent that they could have applied more diligence in using this culture as a setting for the movie, for example, by sticking to a specific Polynesian culture and portraying it in extensive and correct detail rather than blurring them all together. And while the two white directors’ resume of Disney movies is impressive, surely a native Polynesian director could have taken the helm?
Blemishes and all, I did love this movie even more than I expected to. From start to finish, I thought it was an inspiring and inspired take on the old Disney Princess formula. And maybe one day soon I’ll be able to listen to “I Am Moana” without immediately bursting into tears, but I’m not making any bets on that just yet. However, keeping the criticisms of the movie in mind, I’m also definitely driven to learn more about the variety within actual Polynesian cultures, and to educate myself about what Disney could have done better. I hope that those who enjoyed the movie take their passion for it and do the same.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!