For months I have looked forward to Disney’s newest film, Moana. I wrote it boldly on my calendar, counted down the weeks, and pulled my sweet husband to our local theater on the day it opened half an hour early (unheard of for our small town), because I was sure it would be packed with fellow Disney-lovers. We snapped a quick selfie in the rain, grabbed our tickets from the grumpy employee (he needed a bit more Disney in his life, just sayin’), and bounded into the theater which was…empty. There only ended up being about five other people than us in there, which astounded me, but also meant we could have our pick of seats. Score!
Finally–the moment we had waited for–Moana began (here’s the trailer if you haven’t watched it yet!).
For the next 1 hour and 53 minutes I was completely swept up into the world of islanders, adventure, and voyaging.
The Setting of Moana
This film is based, in part, on Hawaiian and Tongan mythology and cultural tradition. Moana, for the first time in Disney history, introduces America to the first people to sale the oceans, many thousands of years before the Vikings or Columbus. Personally, I was so thrilled that they were attempting this story, because ever since I met my Tongan hubby, I have received a crash course on the Polynesian culture. When I first met him I had no idea where Tonga was, and had only a vague impression of the Polynesian people (let’s be honest, I basically had a mental picture of hula dancers and lei’s, and that was about it). He has introduced me to his traditions, music, and history. I have fallen in love, not only with this man, but also with the rich history and people he comes from. I knew nothing about Polynesian history before I met him, and most people (especially in the Midwest where there are very few Polynesians) also know very little about it. Polynesian culture is not included in most history books, high school or college courses, and I was so excited that more people would be exposed to this beautiful culture through the broad and powerful platform of Disney.
There were many reasons I was excited about how accurate this movie might be, and one of the main reasons was the excellent people who were piloting the story: academy award-winning writer/director and New Zealand native, Taika Waititi, wrote Moana’s original script, and it was co-directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who also directed another well-known Disney movie that takes place in the ocean, The Little Mermaid, which arguably features the best songs in Disney history (and is pretty much my favorite Disney film). The cast, too, was filled with potential: from the native Hawaiian leading lady, 15-year-old, Auli’i Carvalho, making her début, to a Polynesian actor well-known to many, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.
This was a well-researched, carefully written movie, and I was primed and ready to be amazed.
My First Impressions
The animation was beyond breathtaking: the ocean, the authentic Polynesian paintings on the boats themselves (my hubby pointed out several Tongan designs throughout the movie), and Maui’s tattoos. Even more than the visual delights, the humor was spot on. There were several moments in this movie where I laughed until my stomach hurt, and smiled until my face got sore, but there were also aspects of the plot that gave me pause. I recognize that I was watching this film with a completely different perspective than I would have half a decade ago: having been with my Polynesian sweetie for four years now, there were moments of this film that reminded me so much of what I know of him that it was just simply a delight to be in a parallel, albeit animated, universe: everything from Maui’s continued jokes about eating the chicken or pig (something my hubby would definitely say) to the dancing tribal tattoos on Maui’s chest (now I can’t look at my hubby’s tribal tat without laughing) were incredibly delightful. I was so happy with how much they got right in this movie.
This comedy in this movie was really done well: my two favorite characters didn’t even have speaking roles! Hei Hei, the rooster, was the first, and Maui’s tribal tattoo was the second. It surprised me how delighted I found myself as I watched these characters. Only Disney could make a dumb rooster into a source of continual amusement.
How my Tongan Hubby Felt About The Overarching Message
About a third of the way through, Moana gives a speech about how her people have always been voyagers, and at that moment I looked over at my husband and he had raised his fist up into the air in a beautiful moment of triumph. That is when I knew he was enjoying the movie. There were definitely vast generalizations and inconsistencies throughout the movie, but then Disney wasn’t attempting to make a documentary about Polynesia: Disney was trying to tell a compelling story. And while there were definitely many creative liberties taken the overall theme of the movie rang true to my husband.
Moana finds out that her strength comes from her people’s history and culture. So many stories in the past glamorize someone who breaks away from their childhood beliefs (Footloose, anyone?), but Moana wants to return to the ways of her people in the past. The very essence of what made them who they are. She wanted to be a voyager again. Polynesians were the first voyagers. The first people to sail the seas, and discover new lands. My husband has told me this story many times before, and the movie did this piece of history justice.
Another theme within the movie that struck a chord was Maui’s message to Moana that it was only from learning from their past that they could start planning for the future. That is something he grew up hearing from his parents, and is a message very dear to the Polynesian people.
So while we could quibble with a few details here and there, the overall message of the movie was beautifully done. The movie does a good job of showing how incredible the Polynesians are, and Saia left the theater proud of his heritage.
There were so many golden moments throughout this film that the inconsistent characters and music hurt that much more, because I could just taste how phenomenal this movie could have been. Lin Manuel Miranda composed the majority of the music. Yes, he is the creative genius behind the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. Yes, he is reportedly an all around swell guy, and lover of Disney music. However, they made the wrong choice in selecting him to be the composer of this Polynesian animated film. I found his music, lacking. Disney has such a rich history of show-stopping songs from “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid to Frozen‘s anthem: “Let it Go”, that I was hoping for greatness. What I got instead was overly simplistic melodies with a bit of rap thrown in here or there for good measure. The music seemed to point back to Miranda rather than tell the story well, and overall it just fell choppy, uninspiring, and disappointing.
I felt like some of the lyrics were neither in holding with the theme of the movie nor were that enjoyable to listen to. It felt a little too Hamilton-y to me, and it could be that Miranda, who wrote much of the soundtrack while simultaneously working on Hamilton, got his projects a little too confused.
However, the few pieces of music written and performed by Samoan singer Opetaia Foa’i and his group Te Vaka were the highlights of the film leaving Miranda’s rather lukewarm songs in the dust. My favorite, the real toe tapper song in the movie, Logo Te Pate (listen to it here) wasn’t even written for Moana, but is a Polynesian song simply used in the movie. I hate to say it, but the Polynesian music were so much richer and the melodies more catchier than Miranda’s. Loimata e Maligi which is unearthly beautiful music was another of my favorites from the film, and it is also a polynesian song (listen here).
The Weak Villains
Disney has been using an increasing number of tragic villains into their films. Wreck It Ralph is one such story of a frustrated and lonely antagonist who ends up being the protagonist. Ralph at the end says “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad.”. It is not so much that he learned the error of his ways, but rather that others learned to accept his “badness”. Maleficent and Felonius Gru (of Despicable Me) were two similarly afflicted villains who were bad, but only because others had “made them this way”.
Maybe I am just old school, but I prefer bad to bad and good to be good. Moral ambiguity is not a good choice for our country, our children or ourselves. A plot is only as strong as its villain. So when one of the villains in Moana turned out good after all, I was sorely disappointed. All three of the villain characters within the film seemed incredibly weak to me, which was a shame.
My Final Thoughts
While I was terribly disappointed in both the music and the villains, I still thoroughly enjoyed this film: from the breath-taking animation to the incredibly witty humor throughout the film, Moana is a movie that both young and old will enjoy. Even more than that, Moana is important because it has introduced a fuller picture of Polynesia to America. Polynesians are more than just hula skirts and leis, and Moana does an excellent job of teaching just that.