Happy Thanksgiving – Moana edition

by John Holbo on November 25, 2016

Went to see Moana. Mild plotspoilers under the fold:

I love animation and I love Disney so I loved it. But I didn’t loooooove love it. It wasn’t as good as Frozen. Or Tangled. Or The Princess and the Frog. Or Beauty and the Beast. Or The Lion King. It was visually stunning, of course. The water effects are mind-boggling. But I say it lacked for strong secondary characters, and it lacked for a central villain. The latter was, I am sure, a highly deliberate omission. Bold departure from formula, really. But they didn’t quite pull it off.

Let’s start at the other end. Moana’s island, family life, home village. She’s the daughter of the chief and we get the classic hero’s journey set-up. “There muust be more than this provincial liiiiife!” She wants to sail forth ‘beyond the reef’ but dad won’t let her, because it’s too dangerous. She has to, because the island itself is in danger and she has been chosen by sentient water to save the world by restoring the heart of Te Fiti, which was stolen by Maui – with the help of Maui. (And it turns out Dwayne Johnson can sing! That’s great!) But I’m getting ahead. There isn’t enough conflict at this first stage. We get dad, who is a very nice guy, repeatedly dragging her from the shore, which is sort of funny. Needs something more. Something more serious. Something that gives her a real reason to stay, even though she has to leave. Some political or dynastic struggle; a threat to dad’s status as chief, due to the spreading darkness. (Makes sense.) Maybe there could be a comic evil priest who has a crazy idea about turning to the dark side, placating the darkness with worship. Maybe, by running away, Moana will be undermining her father’s authority, betraying him not just disappointing him, helping his enemies overthrow him. Now her jerk of a cousin is next in line of succession – that jerk! (He could be a smug, Gaston-style jerk who opens coconuts with his big dumb thumbs.) But see above: she has to go. Well, they didn’t ask me, so it didn’t get written that way.

Also, her crazy-wise granny up and dies, but wouldn’t it be better if granny has to die, to get Moana off the island? (Just think up a reason!) Making Moana feel even worse about leaving? Just a thought!

Then, the villains. The little maniac coconut blowdart guys and the glam-rock giant crab are very well done. “Shiny” is, maybe, the best song. But these monsters aren’t integral to the main line of the story. You could design some other hilarious pirate/sea monster and swap in and it would make about as much sense. Which brings us to the final boss battle, as it were. I don’t want to give it away. I think they were really reaching for a Miyazaki-Ghibli thing at this point. The mystical mystery of nature, monstrously yet attractively personified in the moment of the Big Reveal. I don’t think that’s quite a Disney princess thing, however. Moana and Maui are great characters but they have a kind of Disney matter-of-factness that interferes with that other thing. Moana and Maui are not Miyazaki protagonists so the mood is wrong, if you want a Miyazaki-style ending.

I am also amused that they got Alan Tudyk to do the voice of Hei-Hei the chicken. That isn’t even really a role. I mean: this is the guy who gave us King Candy, in Wreck-It Ralph. (Round our house, that counts for a lot!)



Bill Benzon 11.25.16 at 12:54 pm

“Miyazaki-Ghibli thing”–& that might explain the lack of villainous villains. Some of Miyazaki’s best films lack them .e.g. Totoro, Mononoke, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Porco Rosso, The Wind Rises.


Roy LC 11.25.16 at 5:07 pm

Miyazaki pictures lack explicit individual villains but they have villains. Militarism, destructive industrialization, urban sprawl, etc…


Fats Durston 11.25.16 at 5:08 pm

The animation was just glorious.

My own critique, which I knew was inevitable going in: the simplicity of the Polynesian culture (understandable on an atoll, not on a volcanic island). Why ignore the monumental architecture that appeared across the Pacific? Showing that would be another means of adding to the gorgeousness.

I appreciate the critique on the weakness of conflict in the plot.

Potential materialist villains:
The islanders themselves, rapaciously consuming the landscape at a rate it can’t regenerate (the Diamond model), which might be implied by the film.
Rats. Been done before in Disney, of course, but their voraciousness in destroying tree crops leads to agricultural failure.

Conflict drawn from Polynesian oral literature, that maybe could’ve been written into the story:
A rebel returns to Tahiti from Hawai’i to find a monarch to replace the decadent elites at home.

[vague SPOILER]

Critiques of the plot aside, the resolution by non-violent means was a pleasant surprise.


Plarry 11.25.16 at 8:30 pm

My 9-year old loved it, but my 5-year old had to leave the theatre because the intro water scenes were too scary for her. We didn’t expect that based on the common sense media review, as she’s usually imperturbable.

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