Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
It’s not often that a studio gets two films nominated for Best Animated Feature in the same year. I think that is generally because it’s hard for a studio to release two animated features in the same year. In the case of 2016 and Disney, though, both Zootopia and Moana were released and both were nominated for Best Animated Feature. I watched Zootopia months ago and enjoyed it well enough. Moana made it to NetFlix streaming, which meant I knew its time was coming.
Here’s the thing. The basic story of Zootopia is that racism is bad. Admittedly, that’s not like a staggering revelation, but the entire story is based on the idea that racism is destructive. It’s a fine message even if the movie misses a great deal of the actual problems with racism as experienced in the real world. Moana is an adventure tale about a young girl going to sea to save the island of her people and to connect with the wandering explorers of her people’s past. And Moana is a better argument against racism than Zootopia despite having not a damn thing to do with it.
How’s that? Easy. With Moana, we have a movie that is entertaining, fun, funny, has great characters, and some really good action sequences, and every single character in the film—all of them—are Polynesian. Oh, sure, point to Lilo and Stitch as a movie with non-white protagonists taking place in one of the tips of Triangular Polynesia, but lots of the characters in that are non-Polynesian. Everyone in Moana is an islander, and it is still absolutely a movie that will speak to just about anyone who watches it. It is based in non-American, non-Western mythology, and deals with ancient “primitive” characters respectfully, providing an exciting and entertaining story from start to finish. None of the characters are treated like stereotypes. And, best of all, all of this is completely seamless in that while watching, you won’t notice that this is a non-Western tale presented this respectfully. This, in a word, is how you do diversity well. It makes a case against racism by not addressing racism at all and just telling a damn good story.
What’s the story? Well, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the chief (Temuera Morrison) of her island. Moana wishes to sail beyond the reef and explore the wider ocean, but the people on the island do not sail beyond the reef. For a wonder in a Disney film, Moana also has a living mother (Nicole Scherzinger), who also wishes to protect her daughter. Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House) tells Moana of their people’s past as great travelers and navigators. When the fish seem to disappear from their lagoon and the coconuts on the island begin to rot, it is up to Moana to leave the island to deal with the source of the problem.
That source is Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demigod who stole the heart of the life-giving goddess Te Fiti in the hope of giving the power of creating life to the humans. Instead, this theft has started the slow death of the ocean, a death that has finally reached the island of Moana and her people. So, Moana needs to find Maui, help him retrieve his magical fishhook, and then lead him to Te Fiti to return her heart and restore life to the ocean. The retrieval of the fishhook involves going to a demon world populated in part by a giant crab named Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement) who has probably the best song in the film.
If I have a complaint about Moana, it’s that it might be a little bit song-heavy. This is a minor complaint, and because the songs were written in part by a pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s a very small complaint, indeed. I liked pretty much everything else about Moana. I liked that the characters have a depth to them. Maui, who could very easily be a big, dumb dudebro has layers, skills, and knowledge as well as a touch of heroism about him. Moana herself isn’t the sort of “I can do anything better than you” feminine hero that pervades a lot of “look at us not being misogynist!” animated films (see Brave and Zootopia for examples). Instead, she’s real. She has serious doubts about herself and doesn’t know how to do everything. In fact, the characters may well be the strongest part of the film.
Moana even gets the animal sidekick right. Disney princesses always have an animal sidekick, and most of them are more or less human beings in animal form. They understand everything said to them, think logically, and have reasonable opinions about what is going on around them. In Moana, the animal sidekick is her goggle-eyed rooster Heihei (“voiced” by Alan Tudyk), who routinely walks into walls and pecks next to his food because he can’t figure out how to feed himself.
The long and short of it is that I liked Moana a lot. It has everything that I look for in a good animated movie. There’s a meaningful quest for the characters to go on, the characters themselves are interesting, there’s something very real at stake for everyone involved, and it doesn’t pander (too much) to the adults in the audience. It’s genuinely entertaining and genuinely good.
When Disney is on, it’s hard to find better, and Moana is one of the studio’s best.
Why to watch Moana: It’s Disney at its best.
Why not to watch: It might be a little song-heavy.