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Moana

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Moana is a difficult movie for me to review. The music is amazing. The animation is stunning. I am beyond in love with this film. But, and I hate to say this, at times, I was also kind of bored while watching it.

Really, I think my feelings on Moana comes down to one question: are people singing? If they are, then I think is one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, engaging, wonderful movies. But if people aren’t singing… ehhh.

It’s hard to talk about the visuals and music of Moana with actual words, rather than just vague sounds of amazement. This movie is gorgeous. The music is catchy and emotional and clever, and the combination meant that I spent the movie’s opening half an hour absolutely entranced. I spent the last half an hour similarly amazed. But I got fidgety at some points in the middle, where it seemed to be more jokes than plot. I felt as though the movie should have been condensed a little bit more. The coconut creature battle and a lot of the sailing seemed to slow down the pace, especially as the “Moana is helped by the ocean” gimmick meant that it often didn’t really feel like she was doing anything toward her mission herself until nearer the end.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like Moana’s character, but I found that her moments of quiet determination and bravery were some of her best. People have commented on how all the digital Disney princesses have the same face, but I actually felt like Moana was a personality repeat as well. Moana as a character has lots of unique strengths. She’s physically strong, she’s brave, and she’s ingenious, but she’s also the quippy, sassy, oh-so-modern extravert that we also saw in Rapunzel and Anna, and sometimes that modern element feels a little out of place. More than that, it feels repetitive to have just one kind of “strong Disney protagonist” that’ll have critics going “look how feminist she is, she quips at Maui!” Can we have strength in a different personality type?

That said, I loved the character of Moana behind the quips, and the theme of identity that wove through her story. I loved the complexity of her motivations, and this idea that her problem isn’t being an outsider, but trying to fit all the different parts of her and her different hopes and desires together. She doesn’t just want vague adventures. She wants to help her people. She loves her island. But she also wants to see what’s out in the world, and she eventually leaves when the two intertwine — when she needs to follow her heart to save her island and her people. She’s a very active heroine, choosing her own story, which goes against the “swept along by circumstances” arc that characterises the stories of many female protagonists.

Once we get to discussing Te Fiti and Te Ka, I’m back to lacking words for how much I loved it. How much I loved her animation, how much I loved her story. And this is also where Moana’s quiet bravery came into its own. She obviously has great ingenuity with getting out of tight spots, but the key moment for me was when everything fell apart, and she found the courage to return the heart alone. That was the moment, for me, when Moana finally felt fully in control of her story and her quest to save restore Te Fiti’s heart. And although Moana is physically strong and able, her key trait here was her steadfast bravery, facing Te Ka, feeling empathy for her, and asking the ocean to clear a path so she could restore the heart. Knowing that she could face death, but knowing it’s the right thing to do, and doing it anyway.

And the music in the last third of the movie. The musicI am MoanaKnow Who You Are. These songs are so beautiful that I get teary-eyed just listening to the soundtrack. The journey to reach them didn’t always appeal to me, but once that stingray spirit appeared in the water, I was in love again until the end. The movie really comes together when it uses music, rather than humor, to bring out its story and its themes.

So Moana isn’t set to become my favorite Disney movie. But it is, by far, my favorite Disney soundtrack and the most beautiful-looking Disney movie since Pocahontas, which it blows out of the water (no pun intended) with its gorgeousness. And now I’m doing nothing but listening to the soundtrack on repeat, I’m absolutely in love.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

11 thoughts on “Moana

    1. Tangled. :) Or the live action Cinderella, but I guess that doesn’t really count.

      Hope you enjoyed the double feature! I still need to see Rogue One. Hopefully sometime this week!

  1. I LOVED Moana. And like you, I loved the twist about Te Fiti and Te Ka. I didn’t see that one coming, but it sure was original. I loved the character of Maui too, even though he was a jerk 70 percent of the movie, LOL.

    1. I loved the growth of Maui and Moana’s friendship. I was a little concerned at one point that it would go the romance route, which would have felt really creepy, so I’m very glad that the movie took a different path!

  2. Moana is my absolute favourite Disney movie so far now. I loved Frozen (and everything that came before, but especially Frozen), but I love Moana even more. I relate to her so much at this point in my life that I spent almost 3 quarters of it crying. I LOVED the resolution with Te Ka and Te Fiti so much, for so many reasons. And the thing is, I wasn’t extremely fond of Maui, and not very much of the chicken gags either. But that is all blown out of the water (hehe) by how much Moana and her story and Te Fiti’s story touched me. I still cry immediately as soon as I hear the soundtrack. I don’t know how long it’ll be before that calms down.

    1. I think that’s how I feel about Tangled. I watched it at a difficult point in my life where I just *needed* its message, and the lantern scene still makes me sob every time I see it. I think if I’d seen Moana then, I would have been impossibly in love with it as well. And still, I Am Moana keeps making me cry and cry. It’s so beautiful and so touching.

  3. I like that she isn’t rebelling for the sake of it, she is already responsible and growing into the chief her people need, and her sense of leadership and what needs to be done for their people clashes with her father’s style (as he is ruled in part by his own fears). Moana is allowed to have her fear, but also work through it, though she’s given the opportunity and even permission to turn back and say no (being the protagonist she doesn’t, of course, but it’s there).

    That sense of empathy and leadership and responsibility, her ties to her people and ancestors, all come together when she faces Te Ka. The original idea of the story was to focus on Maui and his legends (kind of like Hercules), but they shifted the focus to Moana, and the story itself reflects that–she isn’t there to find Maui and take him to Te Fiti to restore the heart as she originally thought; he ends up as her helping hand to restore it, not with violence and desperation, but compassion and acceptance. I loved it, overall.

    1. That’s a really good point about how Moana’s arc reflects the writers’ own realization that Maui isn’t the point of the story after all. It’s such a clever movie — the more I think about it, the more I realize how intricate and intelligent it all is, and I love it even more.

  4. Your remarks about the “modern, sassy princess” are hitting home for me. I think the reason Elsa is my favourite of the new “empowered” princesses is because she’s allowed to have flaws. Real, problem-causing flaws that you can empathise with. Rapunzel, Ana and Moana have mostly gotten by on being a bit naive, a bit rash, and a bit stubborn. Elsa is an ex-antagonist and it shows: she’s scared, confused about her identity, and trying to run away from responsibilities that overwhelm her. The movie gave her a proper and original character arc about learning her capabilities, trusting herself again, and facing her fears.

    With the other three, their basic story is “go outside!!! also learn the truth of those lanterns/your sister’s absence/your love of the ocean that’s been bugging you for a few years”. The greater purpose they achieve (restoring the royal family/heart) in their stories is kind of an accident. Less so for Moana, but still it feels like an excuse for her to achieve her dream of sailing, rather than something that drives her.

    Elsa’s story is a very personal journey of healing and self-discovery that has many of the same elements as Te Fiti’s, which was very much my favourite bit of Moana. The narratives of the other three try to play their journeys off as “self-discovery” but it’s more like validation of something they’ve always felt. Which is very powerful, and I loved Moana’s message, but it’s really not as dynamic.

    I think a lot of films intended primarily for children fall into the trap of mistaking character complexity as somehow inappropriate or inaccessible. They coast instead on characters making silly mistakes that are narratively very unsatisfying and uncompelling, or have them never make mistakes at all. I can’t think of one serious mistake Moana made except trying to cross the reef the first time — which happened, of course, because she was being a bit naive, a bit rash, and a bit stubborn.

    Also I can’t get over the similarities between Mother Knows Best and Where You Are.

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