It’s probably been a good fifteen years since the last time I’ve seen a Disney musical (skipping even Lilo & Stitch), and by then I was already too jaded and critical to enjoy it as much as I would have if I’d seen it as a kid, back when one of my grade school teachers nicknamed me Peter Pan from a resemblance to the character from the 1953 film. Of course, all those years ago I didn’t know just how staggeringly offensive the entire “red man” scene from that film is, nor that the teacher who nicknamed me after the titular character would later be arrested as a sex offender, but nonetheless, there was identity in that character.
Where I grew up, Hawaii, almost all of my friends were Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Samoan, and, of course, Native Hawaiian. While I got a taste of these cultures I never felt like a part of them. The closest thing I had to a sense of cultural identity came through movies and television. In high school, I gravitated toward the work of Italian Americans like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, not just because they made amazing films, but because, in some way, I felt – more imagined – some kind of cultural identification with these artists; however negative as the images from their work may be. Not that I wasn’t welcomed by the people around me, but that all of us want something we can claim as ours, who makes us proud of who we are – even when the life displayed is nothing like the one we’ve experienced. The irony of course is that while I felt alienated in my real life, those around me whose cultures and traditions were strong, were alienated on screen. Where almost every movie poster displayed a face like mine, popular culture in the 1980’s and 90’s wasn’t exactly filled with non-white characters for my friends to identify with and the few offered were typically tokens or gross stereotypes. Obviously this problem persists even today. That’s why, years after growing out my Disney musical phase, my interest piqued at the idea of the Polynesian-inspired Moana.
Now, as mentioned, I’m not Native Hawaiian myself (even with a legal name and YA pen name which is literally an anagram of “Moana”) so I absolutely refuse to dismiss any accusations of cultural insensitivity or appropriation. I’ve often thought that what I do remember of my Hawaiian history classes, especially the tales of the demi-god Maui, would make for an amazing movie or video game. Such products could even spark interest and appreciation in the real culture, just as productions as inaccurate as Netflix’s Marco Polo or Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warrior games could inspire people to learn of the Mongolian Empire or Three Kingdoms period. Nevertheless, culture is a highly personal thing, thus feelings of having it stolen or misrepresented are entirely valid (personally, I can’t stand white people with dreadlocks). Thus, the reaction of many of my friends back home has been as predictable as it has been understandable. Particularly troubling was Disney’s idea of marketing Halloween costumes of Moana‘s version of Maui as a tattoo-covered bodysuit. In a morbidly ironic twist on the old stereotype of Pacific Islanders as cannibals, Disney encouraged children to dress in the skin of a Polynesian legend. It is frankly a deplorable blunder on Disney’s part to get so caught up in marketing that they would attempt to sell kids this latest shade of blackface.
All of this is why, and I’m sure I’ll be criticized for saying this, I watched much of Moana while struggling to hold back the water in my eyes.
It needs to be stated right now that Moana is not a representation of any one Polynesian culture. There are elements inspired by several different traditions thrown together with that typical Disney mixture of fantasy, inspirational music, and cheap jokes for the kids. Nonetheless, Moana is an absolutely beautiful movie and something that, give or take a few troublesome elements, should give a new generation and population of children a character to identify with.
Moana‘s first real bit of awe-inducing wonder comes in the titular character’s first encounter with the ocean. The way the water moves and refracts in its ripples and colors is remarkably life-like. From there, more gorgeous visuals carry through: the island of Motunui, the details of its inhabitants with their expressions and tattoos, the fire goddess Te Ka, the terrifying creatures in the realm of monsters, and, most of all, Moana herself. While at times a little too capable, and an obvious amalgamation of several Disney princesses before her (most identifiable to me is Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, but that might be because I haven’t seen a Disney musical in fifteen years), Moana is nonetheless a beautifully designed character. Every detail from her face to the shape of her limbs is well crafted and expressive. There is such life and personality just in the way she lifts her eyebrows, shrugs, and twitches. Even her hair is so perfectly rendered that it actually becomes a character itself. Auli’i Cravalho’s vocal performance as the latest Disney princess (whom the film itself remarks is obviously a princess because she has an animal sidekick) is spot-on. There’s never a moment when the voice and the image on screen are not perfectly suited. Her repeated line of “I am Moana of Motunui” could become the post-millennial generation’s version of “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.” Through my own cynicism and, honestly, trepidation, I couldn’t help the chicken skin (mainlanders would call this goose bumps) from rising at the thought of how wonderful this character must feel throughout her adventure and how proud I was of seeing such a figure on screen.
Less inspiring, however, is Maui.
While different Polynesian cultures have their own versions of his exploits and personality, he is an important enough figure that he shows up in one form or another in at least half a dozen different mythologies. Using this character is the equivalent of depicting Jesus as the typically over-confident, goofy, childish, at times cowardly Disney foil, the type of person who uses a chicken’s beak to sign an autograph and remarks “when you write with a bird it’s called a ‘tweet.'” Yet beyond Maui’s status as a troublesome depiction of a revered hero (the “Hawaiian Superman”), there’s the fact that he can be a challenge to endure. I assume that I’m not a part of the film’s target audience, but Maui is a classic example of someone trying a little too hard to be appealing (and I’m not sure whether using his tattoos as a character is narratively good, morally good, or just bad). Dwayne Johnson commits to the part but for some reason doesn’t disappear into it the way most Disney, Pixar, or the best video game voice actors do, and the result adds to the effect of trying too hard. The same could be said in some ways of Moana, but where she displays both grit and vulnerability, Maui’s swings between pride and selfishness are never wide enough to provide depth. There’s intrigue to his character, but the heart of that scene is provided by Moana, and his one honest statement is undercut by a joke which quickly becomes repetitive. Speaking of repetitive, the only other character which remains throughout the story, Heihei, the idiotic chicken even by chicken standards, is an excellent one-note joke that diminishes quickly.
As for other elements of the film: the music is fine for the story but has only one great song, the best jokes were in the trailer, attempts at being meta seldom work (there is one character who introduces his story “in song form” and leaves with “did you like the song?”), the story is good but so structured that you can track the film’s length by looking for its act breaks, and the supporting character fulfill their purposes. The more important factors to me are that Moana is a marvel to watch, creates an intriguing world, and is just such a wonderful thing to have exist. It’s not the best movie ever, or even of this year, or from Disney, and there is very, very clearly a huge marketing machine behind it, but that doesn’t take away the fact that perhaps millions of little girls now have someone to claim as theirs. Someone that makes them proud of who they are.
Like it or not, fictional characters play a big part in our lives, particularly Disney princesses for young girls. In high school, many of the girls I knew claimed Pocahontas as the Disney character they most identified with simply because she was the only one who wasn’t lily-white and rail thin. Not that they couldn’t identify with the others but that there would always be a distance, just as there is when participating in the traditions of a culture you aren’t raised in. When living in Asia years later a friend told me how happy she was when American girls said she reminded them of Mulan. Tiara of The Princess and the Frog finally gave my friend’s daughter someone she felt she could grow up to be like. Hell, even I went from being Peter Pan to Peter Parker, and still look at fictional characters for self-improvement. Compared to previous Disney characters, Moana has thick limbs and unruly hair, and these only make her more awesome. Now, you can choose to look at these characters as ploys for merchandizing cash or exoticizing minority cultures, but the little girls, and boys as well, who these movies are made for don’t see the executives counting their dollars or oppressors subverting their heritage, they see a character on screen who they want to be. They want to take that ride, that adventure, that voyage. They want to feel as though they belong as part of that world and this one, because they do. They want to stand up and say, “I am Moana of Motunui.”
And this is why, through all my cynicism and doubt, I watched much of Moana while struggling to hold back the water in my eyes.