It has been nice recently going to the movies and seeing women in roles that provide young girls with positive influences in their upbringing. As a girl who grew up absolutely obsessed with Disney movies, I dismiss allegations of the Disney princess franchise portraying girls as domestic and inferior. Moana is one of those Disney movies that remind me why I enjoyed them so much in the first place; the credit goes to directors John Musker and Ron Clements; co-scriptwriters Taika Waititi and Jared Bush; and music composers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa'i.
Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe. She has been chosen by the ocean to return the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, which was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). It’s a journey about Moana and Maui finding their true self and realize their worth.
Unlike Frozen, Moana’s soundtrack is not songs that would be top picks at a karaoke night. They are Tokelauan-infused ballads that leave you in goosebumps. The music has such culture and grandeur. The music is charged so the audience can also be on the journey with Moana in her self discovery as a savior of her people. Then again, when it’s composer Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton, what else can one expect? Also, Dwayne Johnson has a great set of pipes! I had never pinned the guy for a singer until now.
The highlight of the movie was the mythology and cinematography. In an arguably whitewashed media, it is common for non-Eurocentric stories to be inaccurate regarding culture (I’m looking at you, Aladdin). However, I thought Moana did a good job of telling the story of a Polynesian girl. The story wrapped around the culture without having it read like a travel guide pamphlet. There were criticism about how Maui was portrayed as an obese man, as many Polynesian men are often stereotyped, calling the portrayal “unacceptable” and “negative.” Otherwise, from what I saw, I thought it was pretty alright. That being said, I know very little of the Polynesian culture, but it was an eyeopener and made me interested enough to want to learn more.
Moana was delight to watch. She’s charismatic, determined, and a positive role model. She is also quite younger than most of the previous Disney princesses, so it is a character that younger children can understand and emulate. In spite of Maui’s hubris, we ended up loving him because of this golden heart and heart-wrenching backstory.
I had to watch Moana two to three times before I could land an accurate conclusion about this movie, and every time, it came down to the same one: it is a great movie. Is it the best movie Disney has ever produced? Maybe. It talks about culture at a personal level that many movies fail to produce. Many movies, when set in a foreign land, tend to focus on trying to educate its audience, so they know what is going on. John Musker, Ron Clements, Taika Waititi, and Jared Bush does a commendable job in interconnecting the plot and traditions. It is like traveling to a new place; the audience was not forced to run through the cities and memorize the information. Instead, we are walking through the city taking in the beauty of the culture and its people, and in doing so, gaining an appreciation for the land. The characters aren’t forced either. They grow but retain what makes them themselves. It’s a story that, among the majestic cinematography and powerful ballads, is a humble coming-of-age story.