I can’t decide how sad I should be that Disney owns Lin-Manuel Miranda now. On the one hand, I think it’s going to be a really bad thing for his creative freedom (not that we’re likely to hear him complaining), but on the other hand, it’s obviously a really good thing for Disney.
Moana is the story of…Moana, the daughter of a village chief on the South Pacific island of Motu Nui. Despite being surrounded by ocean, her people refuse to sail very far out on it, for fear of monsters and storms. But our rebellious teen heroine loves the ocean, and it turns out the feeling is mutual. Meanwhile, a curse is destroying all the islands in the Pacific because a demigod named Maui has stolen, and subsequently lost, the heart of life-giving goddess Te Fiti. When the curse reaches Motu Nui, Moana sets off on a voyage to save her people by finding Maui and returning the heart.
This movie doesn’t seem to be getting Frozen levels of hype yet (thank the Lord), but just in case it gets there in the coming months, let me reassure you: nothing about Moana is going to revolutionise Disney forever. True, it taps into a culture and mythology that Disney hasn’t really explored before, which is cool. But it’s still about a princess (with the same face shape the animators have been using since Tangled, no less) who rebels against her overbearing dad and her society’s expectations, has a goofy animal sidekick, goes on a journey, finds out she’s The Chosen One, joins up with a grumpy magical creature, and gets encouraged by the ghost of a dead ancestor. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
The only thing Moana is missing, in terms of Disney princess cliches, is a prince. I guess this movie is slightly revolutionary in that, not only does Moana not have a love interest, but the topic of romance and/or marriage never comes up once in the entire story. Which is great, because there’s no room for it, and it’s about time we got a fantasy adventure that wasn’t bogged down by a romantic subplot. Moana’s got oceans to sail and islands to save! Romance can wait!
I will freely admit that the main reason I went to see this film on opening weekend was that I’m obsessed with Hamilton. But by and large, I enjoyed it. The animation is lovely, the characters are engaging, and it goes without saying that the music is awesome. (Except for the hideous pop cover of the main character’s signature song during the credits.) My favourite song is “We Know the Way,” the one where you can actually hear the Lin-Man’s beautiful, beautiful voice.
But I digress.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Disney formula. It works spectacularly just as often as it doesn’t, and it’s produced many a classic in the past, which is why Disney owns the world now. Moana is a perfectly good princess movie, and, while it may not reach the heights of some of the greatest classics, it’s a huge improvement on Frozen.
But Moana is also an excellent example of some of the things I dislike most about Disney. For one thing, I can’t understand their current trend of injecting self-conscious, 2010s-style dialogue into supposedly timeless fairy tales. I am simply not amused by forced Twitter references and fourth-wall-breaking discussions on whether or not Moana fits into the Disney princess canon. I’d rather just laugh at the suicidal chicken, thank you very much. (I’ll admit, though, the sneaky Godzilla cameo made me smile.)
More importantly, though, this movie’s underlying message is the safest, most time-worn Disney message in history: Be yourself and follow your heart. I’ve always found that movie advice to be puzzling, because back when I was a part of Disney’s target demographic, my heart was mainly telling me to read books all day, throw rocks at my brother, and tell my little cousins that Santa Claus wasn’t real. And only one of those was a good thing. It’s all very well for Moana to follow her heart, since it only tells her to go sailing and save her island, but it’s not the best advice for most real people, especially children. Then again, when has Disney ever cared about reality?
Other thoughts about Moana: 1. I had no idea The Rock had any talents other than body building, but he actually did a pretty fantastic job as Maui. 2. One minor villain’s song seemed weirdly out of place in this movie, but I still kinda liked it. 3. The coconut pirates were adorable and I want to hang one from my windshield.
All in all, a good Disney flick. Disney may never make something as great as Kubo, but they’ve done much worse than Moana.