As part of our Jewish Christmas yesterday, we saw Disney’s Moana. Fantastically done, it was a classic hero’s journey story with a Polynesian backdrop. Coupled with Zootopia from earlier in the year, it’s a solid sign that Disney’s really buckled down and focusing on the quality of their output. There’s been a recent push (likely from armchair internet commentators) towards diversity and three dimensional characters. From this standpoint, Moana excels. Of course it’s a film for a broad audience and it’s casting a wide net of pan-Pacific cultural influence, so it’s not gonna get everything right. I really can’t speak for the personally affected cultures, but as someone who grew up on the Maui legends of Maori origin, seeing that onscreen held a deep resonance for me.
The story of Maui, as far as I understand it, varies between Polynesian cultures. The Maui I was raised with was a cunning trickster and shapeshifter as depicted in the film. In lieu of a magic fish hook, he was armed with his grandmother’s magical jawbone. I remember fondly the tales of Maui calling together his friends to slow down the sun or fishing up the North Island. I guess they left out the part where he, in a quest to make mankind immortal shapeshifted into a worm and crawled up the sleeping goddess of death’s vagina. A hero being crushed by vagina dentata wouldn’t really belong in the Disney Vault.
Seeing Maui perform a brief haka before charging into battle and Moana embracing a character with a Hongi gave me chills. Having the ocean personified as such a central character was great and, much like Life of Pi, its unforgiving and beautiful nature shone through. The songs were catchy, with some slick writing from Lin-Manuel Miranda and others. Moana’s literal/emotional journey were inspiring and her relationship with her grandmother was one of the film’s cornerstones. It was also nice to see some knowing winks at Disney clichés. The lack of a romantic subplot was an awesome touch in an industry where it’s so often shoehorned in. Romance is great when it fits, but not all stories have to be all things.
On a technical side, the film looked fantastic. Hair has always been such a benchmark of animation quality and they’ve nailed it here. I remember thinking back when Final Fantasy VIII was released that things couldn’t get better. The years have happily conspired to prove me wrong. The ocean being such a central character, is gorgeously rendered in a brilliant blue. The colour palette is lush and visually eye-catching, screens filled with background details. There’s a well cultivated sense of physics (even in a film about gods and demigods) that really comes to life in the action scenes. The film is simply a joy to watch.
Your viewing might be different than mine, but for me it felt very close to home. A home that’s only five days away! See you soon NZ.