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By Caroline Cao · December 4, 2016
In Moana’s signature musical sequeway, the titular heroine discovers hidden relics of her ancestor’s ships as she bangs an ancient drum, which swoops her into a majestic vision. She witnesses her ancestors sailing across the sea to the tune of a goosebump-inducing epic song number “We Sail the Way” that rivals “The Circle of Life.” Like Moana’s rediscovery of a past, the film revives the tradition of the musical princess story. But just because Moana is a momentary return to an old artform, it does not make it out-of-date.
If Frozen and Tangled served as the prototypes of Disney’s CGI potential in the fairy tale or mythical realms, Moana is the fully-realized one. It’s a fresh break from the modernized Big Hero 6 and Zootopia.
The film opens on an ancient South Pacific world and its young princess protagonist Moana (voiced winningly by newcomer Auli’I Cravalho) as she heeds an Earth origin story: A wily demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) snatches the stone-heart of the Gaia-esque Goddess and unleashes a gradual decay of the world’s resources.
Young Moana is not the first of the Disney princesses who is deeply conscious of impending queenhood, a relatively new subject matter in the discourse of Disney princesses. But she signifies a major stride in depiction of queenhood. Unlike Merida, her story does not contain the rudiments of love interests or the wariness of upcoming marriage. Like Elsa, she does confront the anxiety of leadership and stares at her headdress, her essential crown, with hesitation. Her sea quest represents both her pursuit of freedom beyond her village and her maturation as a budding leader.
Like all high-spirited Disney princesses, she has her eyes on the horizons beyond the safety reefs. But through a chorus of song verses, her chieftain father and her people reel her back to her royal commitments. Despite her yearning for beyond the horizon of the island, she does truly want to stay for her beloved people and forge her own happiness there.
But then comes a time where she needs to leave as her people’s food source mysteriously dissolves. She finds that the unpredictability of the waves is beyond her comfort zone. Although she is literally allied with the ocean, almost an animated character in itself, can gesture hints and intervene, it also settles back at appropriate moments where Moana has to earn her own experience.
She journeys out to recruit the aide of Maui. Bearing tattooed-recordings of past feats (and perhaps one of Disney’s darkest origin story since the Hunchback of Notre Dame), the demigod Maui is a muscle-bearing egomaniacal Promethian-messiah whose feats had been done in the name of worshipped by mortals. He becomes her beguiled sailing mentor who teaches her to read the stars to find her direction.
He also has a tiny tattooed replica of him that serves as fundamentally the stand-in of a conscience-angel-on-the-shoulder (except on his chest) that constantly reminds him of his good side.
Both Moana and Maui sail into deathtraps, including the adorably menacing tiny coconut-shelled pirates who partake a breathtaking chase sequence with an ingenuity almost like “Mad Max: On the Sea, Disney Edition!”
Years ago, I considered myself disappointed with debunked rumors that Moana would not be heavily designed in the medium-blending like in the Disney’s Paperman hand-drawn-blended-with-CGI short. Luckily, the solidness of the CGI here does wonders for rendering the lush texture and the blockiness of details. The animators resourcefully play with every expressive stream as Maui’s body tattoos dance in an animated life on its own to accompany the beats of his tales.
Like the recent Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana serves as the embodiment of the mythical, rooted in its Polynesian roots. I can forgive its few trips into the clichés of cartoony slapstick, a few gratuitous winks at its Disney trademarks (with Maui vocalizing Moana’s status as a princess with a cute animal sidekick), and more-forced-than-funny anachronistic allusions (see the “Tweet” joke or the remarks about high-fives), but even compared to its princess-movies predecessors Tangled and Frozen (considered beloved films not without faults), Moana bears a sharper restraint on these troublesome tropes and remains anchored in its cultural edges and the consistency of the musical cultural carvings—the notable exception is a campy David Bowie-esque song number of a enemy. Moana is contentedly clear-cut and woven in familiar Disney and Five-Act Structure school-script beats but saturated with breath to float it above the formulaic surface. It also designs a shrewd twist, as now per the norm in previous modern Disney films for better or worse, and in this case, for a thematic coming-of-age resonance and a mythical punctuation.
With electric lyrics and reverberating drum-laden score whipped up by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, Moana presents its lyrical chops in articulating the tribal philosophies, familial bonds, the affirmation of identity, and the balance between obligations and wants. Although most would consider Manuel-Miranda’s labor as the usual ear-worms, I liken his music as more of a divine echo where its memorability isn’t in the catchiness of beats but rather the resonance of rhymes and meaning.
Moana serves as something of an animated blessing this holiday season. The heroine comprehends the primal desire to venture into the new while also holding her origins close to her heart. Mirroring this strong princess’s epiphany, this narrative revers the ancient and the forward-techniques of animation. In an already great year for Disney animation, this movie proves to be their watershed.
Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When she’s not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she’s doing cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, or hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. Her columns and poems have popped up on The Cougar, Mosaics: The Independent Women Anthology, Glass Mountain, OutLoud Culture, and Aletheia. Her flash fiction recently earned an Honorable Mention title in Sweater Weather magazine. She has her own Weebly portfolio and contributes to Birth.Movies.Death.