Saturday, November 26, 2016

MOANA - Familiar Formula, Fresh Hook

If you're more than passingly familiar with the Disney Renaissance of the 1990's, then the names Ron Clements and John Musker may ring a bell. These two men were veterans of the "Dark Age" when the studio almost closed down Disney Animation for good, and not only did they direct 2 films that arguably kicked off and then firmly cemented the House of Mouse's comeback - with 1989's The Little Mermaid and 1992's Aladdin - but they also helmed the studio's final (to this date) 2D animated Princess Feature in 2009's The Princess and the Frog.

To put it mildly, these are film-makers who know the Disney Princess gig like the back of their drawing hand, and could probably do an animated film about a feisty heroine who goes on a journey of self-discovery with animal sidekicks and magical companions in their sleep.

And you'd be forgiven for assuming this is just what they did with Moana, but you'd be mistaken.

To put it simply, Moana is a film that masquerades as a familiar grab bag of time-tested "Princess Movie" tropes in order to smuggle in what is actually an unapologetic female-centered Hero's Journey narrative. And rather than waiting for a princes to come, the film's title character goes Luke Skywalker all over the damn place.

Set in the pan-Pacific island world of Oceania, Moana tells the story of the daughter of a village chieftain, destined to one day lead her people, who feels a call to the sea that flies in the face of her island's isolated culture. Fearing the spread of darkness, monsters, and angry gods that followed a theft of the Heart of Te Fiti (a magical gem belonging to the Goddess of Creation, who's disappearance had Pandora's Box-like results), the people of Moana's village stay on their island paradise, never venturing past the safety of the reefs and lagoons for fear of what lies beyond. Yet their legends tell of a hero destined to lift this curse and return what was stolen.

(You can already see where this is going, right?)

There's a lot about Moana that plays exactly as well as you'd expect. The film is a visual feast, perfecting a lot of CGI animation techniques that have been sprinkled throughout previous Disney or Pixar joints (the water from Finding Nemo, the hair from Tangled, etc.) and the songs by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa'i, and Lin-Manuel "Freakin' HAMILTON, y'all!" Miranda are dynamite in their own right (and more evenly distributed throughout the film than the last couple Disney Princess joints). Miranda's contribution is particularly apparent, giving most of a the songs a meter and rhyme scheme that is very different than the usual "Disney Musical House Style," in a way that both helps the film maintain its own cultural "feel" while also ensuring there's no "Let it Go" that will become as easy to endlessly repeat by the kid audience.

Additionally, the voice cast - almost entirely made up of native actors - is as good as you'd expect from a marquee Disney production. But special attention should be given to Auli'i Cravalho, a newcomer who doesn't just immediately propel her title character into the upper echelon of Disney heroines, but is integral to how this film is more than "exactly what you'd expect."

One of Moana's best plays is that it pretty much always tips its hand just enough so that the audience is able to see the path that a movie like this should take, which subtly underlines (but never outright calls out) the fact that that girls - especially Polynesian Islander girls - almost never get the starring role in these stories. Moana is literally the Chosen One, called and anointed by the ocean itself to return the power of creation to the goddess from which is was stolen, and Joseph Campbell would be perfectly familiar with beats such as the "Call to Adventure," "Supernatural Aid," and "Belly of the Whale" that she encounters. The first great victory of this presentation is to show how utterly natural it is to not only focus on a female hero, but one who doesn't have the slightest shade of any romantic subplot whatsoever. The film all but points at itself and shouts "See how easy that supposedly 'scary' progressive stuff was - WHY DID IT TAKE SO DAMN LONG?"

The other huge feather in the movie's cap is how staunchly feminist it is in ways that aren't immediately apparent.

Part of this has to do with the character who's received the lion's share of the marketing muscle, the charismatic but arrogant trickster demi-god Maui. Voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Maui is,at first glance, another riff on the same "type" of character that Robin Williams made practically mandated to all animated features when he voiced the Genie, and even on that surface level he's well-used here. Moana is instructed to enlist the aid of the boisterous shape-shifter given that he was the one who stole the Heart of Te Fiti in the first place, but over the course of the film there's more and more context given to both Maui's actions and their repercussions. And if the setup of "a young girl has to clean up the mess resulting from a man's theft of creation from a powerful woman, which has thrown the whole world out of balance" doesn't spell out a good portion of the film's message for you, then the finale confrontation with the fiery "demon" Te Ka will drive the point home with a vengeance.

Similarly to this summer's Kubo and the Two StringsMoana is the sort of film that improves as it sits with you, a narrative that knows the familiar beats of a family fantasy movie backwards and uses our own familiarity with them to make its central points. It doesn't have the cutting "guys will lie to you to get what they want" messaging of Frozen, but it makes no bones about the fact that even supposed "allies" of strong women will be often be mansplaining oafs who may need to be brow-beaten into cooperation. Moana isn't just about a princess who wants to "find herself," but rather is about a girl, who, with the help of other women and against the wishes and wills of short-sighted men, fights to rediscover the place of her people in a world that they have largely forgotten.

But perhaps most importantly, it's a movie that practically screams to the four corners of the earth that there's no difference at all between a "chosen hero" and a "princess." Because...well, why would there be?

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