Sailing the South Pacific


I am not a big fan of the Disney PrincessesReleased in 1937, Disney's Snow White was a gamble for the company: the first fully-animated, feature-length film ever created. It's success lead to the eventual creation of the Disney Princess franchise, which has spawned 13 main-line films and multiple spin-off movies and shows.. It's not because they're "girly" or because they are generally romantic films (although not today's flick, Moana, it should be noted), but because I largely don't care about movie musicals. While music in movies is great and can help drive scenes, musicals have a tendency to drag out story. There's the awkward moment when a character starts to sing for no reason other than music swells and they feel like they have to unleash their emotions. It's a contrivance I can't get behind, beyond which generally musicals force the characters to take five minutes to sing about something that could have been said in 15 seconds. It just doesn't work for me.

There are times in Moana where the musical side of the production takes over and scenes do drag. But those moments aren't as bad as they could be in some (the times where Moana is on a ship by herself and sings as a kind of monologue so we understand her actually works and are the few times where the contrived music doesn't really feel contrived). What really works, though, is that Moana is a solidly realized character on an adventure for herself, not to find love or whatever but because she's the hero her people need and she knows it. That's the kind of princess-ing I can get behind.

In the film our heroine, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is the daughter of the chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) of the Motunui people. Moana has always longed to be in the ocean, to sail the seas and to explore the world beyond her island's reef. Even as a little baby she felt a kinship with the ocean (which the ocean, a mystical animate being, reciprocated, protecting the girl from dangers). Her father, though, refused to let her sail, and no one on the island was ever allowed to leave he cove.

Things changed, though, when a blight started spreading across the land. The coconuts were growing moldy, the fish stopped swimming nearby, and all that people could think was that the goddess Te Fiti, she who created the world and protected its people, had grown angry. As the story went, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti for humanity, but that action (taken hundreds of years ago) has turned foul. Now Moana has to secretly sail out beyond her cove, find Maui, and convince him to take the heart back to Te Fiti to heal the goddess's wound and save Moana's people.

There are parts about Moana that work and parts that don't but, undeniably, the part that works best is Moana herself. The character is a well-rounded girl who has her life focused on the needs and safety of her people. While she's not technically a princess, the movie goes out of its way to make sure we know she really is one and, in the process, shows that princesses can be more than damsels trapped in a tower waiting for a hero to rescue them. This isn't a love story, or a tale where Moana has to be saved. This is her story, she's the hero, and everything that happens is because she's on her journey, following her path.

Less great, honestly, is Maui. While Mr. D. Rock Johnson is a very charismatic actor, and his vocal performance here is solid, the actual character of Maui is a total dud. He's a demigod in the vein of Hercules, with that same overlay of superhero tropes against more classical mythology. While I get the humor derived from that, and the film has a few amusing moments with the character, by and large he's too shallow, and far too annoying, to act as the co-star of this film. Any time he left and we had just Moana figuring out her stuff the movie got so much better.

As a classic Disney musical much of the story is told via songs. Some of them are better than others with Moana's own ballad, "How Far I'll Go", certainly behind the stand out. Other tracks, though, aren't nearly as good. While "You're Welcome", Maui's theme, is memorable it's also grating (again, due to Maui himself). Meanwhile other tracks -- "Tulou Tagaloa", "An Innocent Warrior" -- feel more like book numbers than breakout hits (to use Buffy parlance). They fill time and are fine enough but they don't feel necessary or like they really push the plot forward as quickly as they should. Still, in my book a "largely tolerable" musical is still better than most.

Well, okay, there's one other song that really sucks and I do feel like I have to single it out on its own: "Shiny". The song is performed by Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame (among other works). The man is brilliantly funny and usually his music is great but this track, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (as were most of the tracks of the movie) just doesn't work. It's grating, dragging the whole pace of the film down to a crawl, and the movie would be so much better off if this entire sequence, Clement's crab character and all, simply wasn't in the movie to begin with. This scene is the big dud of the film.

Graphically, though, the movie is a real stunner. The wide-open expanses of water look absolutely beautiful, giving a real sense of scene and place without ever seeming boring (despite it being, well, a large expanse of water). There was clearly a lot of work put in to program the water, not just for the ocean but for everything that goes in and gets wet. Just the sequences of Moana getting dunked and coming out of the water are great because all of her long hair is animated so well, both wet and dry. This is a master class in water effects and making them look realistic and beautiful. Honestly, everything about this movie's graphics work so damn well.

Backing it all up is that script, a solid story of discovery, both of what's beyond Moana's reef as well as the reserves she has within herself. Her story is fantastic and it drives the movie past any small hiccups it may have. Maui isn't great, and he really doesn't have an arc (he's selfish throughout and then, when he hits adversity he runs away... until he doesn't without any real explanation). There's a sequence with pygmy pirates that feels like it was put in solely to add an action beat since the characters never show up again. And the, honestly, we never get any explanation for why the ocean likes Moana so much. Does any of that really matter, though? Not really when the heroine at the center of the film is so solid. She's great and she drives the film forward on her sheer force of will, carrying the whole thing.

here are slightly better films in the Disney canon (I think both Frozen and Tangled are better and more consistent Princess movies), but it's hard to find one with a better, more realized, and more independent lead character. Moana is a princess that handles her own shit and, for that reason alone, this movie works so well.