In the Animation pavilion at Disney’s California Adventure, they run a looping show where scenes from Disney movies are projected on screens all around the lobby along with concept art and music. Each movie gets about 30 seconds to a minute, so sitting in the lobby will run you through the entire gamut of Disney Movie Emotions in about 5-10 minutes.
I was reminded of it while I was watching Moana, since within the first 20 or so minutes of the movie I felt like I’d already gone through two Disney movies’ worth of emotions, and that was all before Maui’s entrance started the plot.
It’s kind of like shotgunning a Disney Princess movie, having someone stridently yelling Believe In Your Dreams! Find Your True Calling! You Have Five Seconds To Comply! right into your ear. It’s also just self-aware enough to sidestep the most trite aspects of Disney Princess movies, but not so self-aware as to be insufferable. It explicitly mentions its heritage when Moana denies that she’s a princess, and Maui insists that being the daughter of the chief and having an animal sidekick automatically makes her a princess. I also wonder if it intentionally did a bait-and-switch on the audience by setting up the adorable pig Pua to be her sidekick, but then leaving him behind in favor of Heihei, “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.”
But for every element of Moana that sticks close to the template, there’s something else novel, original, or simply inspired. I doubt I’m the only white American who’s getting his first exposure to Polynesian mythology from the movie; up to now, I only knew that Pele was a volcano goddess and that Maui gave his people time.
It’s reassuring that the filmmakers made a concerted effort to get it right, consulting with people knowledgeable about the various cultures in the Pacific Islands and casting people with that heritage for the main roles. (Okay, so they kind of lucked out that The Rock is of Samoan descent since he’s proven he can do just about everything, but they still get a point from me).
After Hercules — another movie largely about a demigod and made by several of the same people at Disney feature animation — took so many liberties with the mythology in order to make an acceptable family movie, I wondered why they’d even bothered in the first place. It’s still charming (albeit inescapably 1990s), but if you’re having to change that much of the source material, why make an adaptation? Moana feels more like a respectful amalgamation of the mythology of several different Polynesian cultures than an attempt to sanitize and whitewash interesting stories into trite reiterations of the same idea.
In fact, that scene with Maui’s introduction with the song “You’re Welcome” is a great example of how Moana gets it right. It’s multimedia and multicultural: a traditional broadway-style song about a Pacific Islander demigod, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an Atlantic Islander demigod. (He shares songwriting credit with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, but it certainly seems the most like his work from Hamilton). Maui’s dance is a combination of traditional musical theater and Polynesian dances. The stories he mentions are each from different cultures’ versions of Maui and creation stories. His tattoos aren’t just an example of 2D animation combining with 3D, but of flat and graphic cartooning inspired by Polynesian art.
To me, it never feels like lazy pastiche or opportunistic cultural appropriation, but like an earnest collaboration: this is the kind of moving, often funny, often breathtaking work that we can create when we share what we all have to contribute. Every production has its share of difficulty and 5-year-long animated feature projects most of all, but Moana feels to me like a movie with no compromises. (I think the sequence with Tamatoa is by far the weakest in the movie, but the lighting effects are really cool and Jemaine Clement’s David Bowie impression is always welcome). Disney’s 900,000-lb gorilla status is often criticized and with good reason, but I think that here’s an example of how it pays off brilliantly: something beautiful gets made and stories and values from cultures that aren’t widely known get broadcast to literally of billions of people around the world.
Before the movie was released, there was an insipid and mean-spirited nontroversy around it, an attempt to generate outrage over Maui’s character design. The claim was that people in Polynesian communities were upset that Maui was depicted as “obese,” or according to one particularly nasty complaint: “a hippo.” It was bullshit even before the movie’s release; body shaming passed off as cultural sensitivity. After the movie’s release, it’s even more offensive: not only are the men and women of Moana depicted as being of various body types (most of them buff AF), but an aspect of Maui’s birth and his self-image are ingeniously incorporated into the Disney Princess-threads of the story, to cleverly tie together all the disparate accounts of Maui’s adventures into a single narrative about his relationship with humankind. Which makes the body-shaming even worse.
In Moana, Maui’s big, brash, and self-assured, and there’s little question he can do what he sets out to do. Or at least if there is, it’s not because of his body. The same goes for Moana herself: not only is there no trace of a romantic comedy in the movie, but her gender is never made an issue. In the beginning of the film, it’s established she’s going to be the next chief, and no one questions it or challenges it, and at no point in the movie is there even a hint that her strength is uncharacteristic or unusual for a young woman. (It’s not ignored, either; you could argue that the quality that makes Moana the hero in the climax of the film is not physical strength or stubbornness, but the empathy that’s usually considered a feminine trait).
And in neither case does it feel like anything is missing. Instead, it feels as if we’ve spent years making Important Progressive Issues out of things that aren’t genuine issues at all. In the case of complaining of Maui’s character design (or even more ridiculously, complaining about sexual dimorphism of the volcanoes in Lava), it was dressing up an at-best superficial, at worst genuinely offensive dismissal as if it were a progressive argument. And with all the Strong Female Characters, it was setting a weirdly low and unnecessary “as good as any man” bar for female characters to pass, and then cheering the characters that passed it instead of wondering why we needed such an artificial distinction in the first place.
So sure, Variety, I’ll agree that Moana shows that diversity can be good for business. But I also say it exposes some of the hypocrisies of the faux-Progressives who disguise self-importance as inclusivity, or attempt to use sensitivity as a bludgeon. It shows the kind of breathtaking and beautiful things that can be created when we respect another culture and give it a chance to speak, and then not “appropriate” it, but make it part of the celebration of our shared humanity.