by Michael B. Hock
I’ve watched three movies this year that I did not want to end. The first was Deadpool which managed to take a pretty simple superhero origin story/revenge plot and turn it into something innovative. The second was Everybody Wants Some!!, a light on plot (THAT’s how you do “light on plot” American Honey) film where everyone was just so much fun, I didn’t want to stop hanging out with all of them. The latest is Moana, a typical “chosen one” Disney Princess film that manages to up the fun, builds twists, and just sets up a world that’s rich and full.
Moana is about the titular princess… uh, chieftain’s daughter (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho… who lives on the island of Motunui. She spends her days dreaming off an island that is roughly the size of… well we never get how big it is, just that it’s small, and she wants off it. She spends most of her time hanging out with a pig, since most Disney Princesses tend to hang out with some kind of faithful companion. There’s a fun pork joke. Her father, Chief Tui Waialiki, spends most of his time studying how great the island is, and how no one would want to ever leave. Especially since he tried once, and he almost died.
Soon, the island starts dying, brought about by a curse when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti, a goddess. Naturally, Moana sets off for adventure, in one of the great ways this movie subverts the genre, with a chicken named Heihei, who would have died a long time ago had it not been for the fact that he was too stupid to know he’s dead (voiced by Alan Tudyk). She starts on her quest to find Maui, return the heart of Te Fiti, and remind her father of her counter
I don’t know how much I can express how much I loved this movie. If I had one complaint, it’s that the prologue on the island tends to last a little long, but looking back, it does this for a good effect. Moana spends a good first third of the film not adventuring, but rather ruling the island and setting herself up to the be the new chief when her father eventually passes the role onto her. When I first watched this, I kept waiting for something to drive her into action, because while lush island paradises are fun to be on, I don’t want a movie to remind me that I’m stuck in Virginia in November. You know what we have in Virginia in November? Wet leaves. Everywhere. I don’t even know how they remain wet for so long, they just do. Sunny for a week straight? That pile is still uncomfortably moist.
The effect of keeping Moana on the island and making the audience restless is sort of the point: Moana is restless, so why shouldn’t we? We want her to get on with her adventure. My point is: how do you get people to root for a woman to leave a lush, tropical paradise for unknown danger and possibly death at the hands of singing crabs and lava monsters? You trap us on an island for too long and want her to go. Carvalho uses that frustration every moment, so while Moana is living a life of almost paradise, you can get why she wants to leave.
This is just one example of the way this movie uses every trick it possibly can to get you to buy into not only this journey, but to the entire story itself. So when the action stops for a few minutes so Maui can sing a three minute song about how great he is, it’s a reminder that what we’re watching is a very charismatic demigod tricking us into not only liking him, but the fact that he started this whole mess with trying to destroy the natural order of things. Once again, we have a character that could be very unlikeable, or at least one that has the danger of the audience turning on him, but the charisma of Johnson transforms him more into the trickster god that he actually is, rather than just a jerk who’s trying to steal a boat and not answer for destroying the world and all.
Speaking of music: Lin Manuel-Miranda is responsible for a lot of it, and his talent as a writer is on full display here. (He also wrote something called “Hamilton”. I hear it’s going to be pretty big. You should check it out.) his background in musicals is an important one, as he writes songs that are not just catchy but move the plot along. Frozen was a great movie, and I loved Olaf, but did we need him to sing about how great Summer was? Or the plot coming to a grinding halt so some trolls could talk about offing a prince so Anna could marry their chosen one? That’s not to knock these songs (which I listen to daily, and you should too) , but the discovery in “We Know the Way” or even the second verse of “Shiny” where the murderous crab actually addresses several of the characters as they try to steal something from him… these move the plot along in an interesting way. The music is used to full effect in a way that hasn’t been evident in Disney movies in a long time, and I was happy to see it here.
Simply put, this is a wonderful movie. The thing is, I can’t put my finger on just one thing, because all of the parts work together to make this wonderful movie what it is. All of the parts fit in a way that’s unique and captures the spirit of these characters in such a moving and wonderful manner.
Go see it.