Moana is astonishing. It’s been out three weeks, and here I am, finally getting around to seeing it and reviewing it. But I was wrong to resist it so strongly. Numerous friends told me how good the movie was; they were right.
I know a lot about Disney animated musical feature films, not because it’s a subject that particularly interests me, but by virtue of being a 21st century American with kids. I know all the princesses, I’ve seen all the movies, and can probably sing the biggest songs from each. I know correspondingly much much less about the culture and worldview and achievements and mythology of Pacific Islanders. I know that Samoans and Fijiians and Hawaiians have rich and astonishing histories and traditions, but I am almost completely ignorant of those cultures. So here we have a Disney animated musical about a Pacific Island girl. And I would say that I am approximately 1000 times more interested in the mythological underpinnings of this story than I am in the Disney musical parts. That said, I didn’t particularly want to see it. And there’s a reason why: it’s called Pocahontas.
In 1995, Disney released their latest Big Animated Movie, based on the story of Pocahontas. I took my kids to see it, as mandated by federal law. And it was awful. I found it a misguided, ahistorical, grotesquely insensitive exercise in cultural appropriation. And the songs weren’t even very good. ‘Ah,’ I thought, Color of the Wind is a beautiful song. I’m being too harsh.’ But no, I just listened to that song again. Could those lyrics have been more condescending? Pocahontas was a disaster. Well-intentioned, sure. But bad.
So I figured Moana would be bad too, and in the same way. And again, I’m coming at this from a position of utter ignorance. But I thought it was terrific. I thought it genuinely honored its cultural sources. The animation was astonishing, and the story couldn’t have been more compelling.
Most of the movie is set on a small boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean, with just two characters. Moana (voiced by the sensational Auli’i Cavalho) is young; she’s not really a princess, and she’s not a target for romance. She’s smart and brave and incredibly self-confident. She knows who she is and what she needs to do, and she’s about the most volitional protagonist I know. Her pure driving energy keeps the movie afloat, which is a good thing, because there do need to be longish scenes of exposition, while dumb American audiences (like me), get caught up on the cultural tropes the film’s exploring.
But the other main character is Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and who knew The Rock could sing?). And if Moana is the irresistible force, Maui is the immovable object. Maui is a demigod, plus he can sail a boat (which is, for Moana, his most immediate value to her). He has a magic fishhook, and anthropomorphic tattoos that admonish and encourage him and also tell his backstory. He’s a tremendous character–blustery, comedic, whiny, tough, charismatic, immature.
Their task: to replace a magic jewel stolen by Maui from another divine creature, thus removing a curse on her people. My guess is that this Maui is a pastiche; that there are different Maui legends among Hawaiians than you’ll find on Fiji, or Samoa, or on Tahiti or on Tonga. Again, I don’t know a darn thing about Polynesian history and culture, except that they were the world’s great sea-faring people, more adventurous even than my Viking forebears. The film honors that too; shows us the history of those great seagoing catamarans.
If there were moments in this film that didn’t 100% make sense to me, I figure it’s just because of my own cultural ignorance. In the meantime, I loved it, and wish there were more films like it. I couldn’t help notice, in the closing credits, how many cultural advisors the film employed. Good for them! Get the details right; hire experts, and listen to them. Disney has learned a lot since Pocahontas.
One last note; I couldn’t help notice that several of the songs in this movie were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, including the two best songs in the show: “How Far I’ll go,” sung by Moana, and “You’re Welcome,” sung by Maui. So, here we have a musical about Pacific Island culture, and two of its best songs are written by a Puerto Rican kid from Washington Heights. Isn’t that great? By golly, that’s America!