Moana/Vaiana (2016)

Moana (2016)
Starring Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
Music by Mark Mancina
Songs by Opteaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Edited by Jeff Draheim
Written by Jared Bush
Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker
Rating: 9 out of 10

Moana (or Vaiana as it is confusingly known in Germany and many other countries) is a surprisingly effective Disney movie that basically gets everything right. While Frozen is sweeping and has undeniable charm, it also has its big share of problems, Moana hits all the right marks. It has great characters, is visually innovative and stunning, delivers an interesting plot and catchy songs. For being a big Disney skeptic, I was surprised by how much this movie impressed me. Its messages are not subliminally dangerous but actually important. Even Zootopia (also confusingly renamed Zoomania in Germany), with its great central storyline about diversity and tolerance, is not as immersive and effective on so many levels as Moana is (although it is also pretty great).

(spoilers ahead)

Because the movie took me by surprise so much, I decided to write about it right away instead of waiting for Behind These Castle Walls, Part XLVII. We’ll see if I write a more detailed article then (in 20 year or whenever I’ll get there – but hey, Part V is somewhat close).

Let’s start with the central character, Moana (or Vaiana), a Polynesian girl who is supposed to become the next leader of her tribe but who feels the ocean is calling her to do something else. She is not the typical Disney princess (which she literally denies in an amazing meta-moment). In early scenes she proves that she would make a very good leader, having a hand for problem-solving (without being the typical “woman who wants to organize and control everything”). She follows her instincts instead of her parents’ wishes but not without expressing self-doubt over questioning what she has been told by her father for years.

Besides her intelligence and emotional core, she is also strong and tough, but never becomes the terrible cliché of the ‘badass’ that so many modern movies offer for female characters, where they essentially become men disguised as women. Moana has some great action scenes but her intelligence is always the reason she gets out of dangerous situations. She never relies on Maui, her male partner on her mission, to rescue her. The finale shows her both avoiding a violent encounter by outsmarting her opponent and then to show the informed courage of facing the opponent head-on by appealing to its emotions. She also doesn’t come across as perfect as she can be quite stubborn. There are moments where she is truly scared but she always overcomes her fears and tackles any challenge, making her a really great role model for young kids.

Making the characters be members of an indigenous tribe provides the movie with a thematic background that is relevant for our culture. It portrays them in a positive way, without making them seem savage or striving to be more developed. They care about their traditions and pass them on through stories. They work together as a tribe and see themselves as part of the world instead of something they need to conquer.

The movie’s conflict arises from Maui (a demi-god) attempting to become more than that by giving humans the power to control everything. He steals “nature’s” heart making them become more fearful and isolated and ruining the ocean and the earth through it. Nature’s representation, Tefiti, becomes an angry lava monster and the heart is eventually returned by Moana, she becomes whole again and she and humans live in harmony again. This is more or less the idea behind Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, even if it is a Disney version of it that makes a lot of it smoother and simpler, but the core idea is the same.

The only real villain in the movie is Tamatoa, a giant crab, that only cares about owning things and who only looks at the surface, which is a perfect way to mirror Moana, who only needs look at her inside to manage every challenge she faces.

There are many more things in the movie that are worth discussing or praising but this should be enough to convince you that this is a really good movie, Disney or not. I really won’t mind having to listen to the songs for the next months this time.