Moana (2016)

Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Starring Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House.

After watching Zootopia eight or nine months ago, I thought that Disney movies were starting to stick to their claim outside musicals. After watching Moana, the latest entry to the Disney canon, I’m more sure than ever that the best elements of Disney movies for the foreseeable future will be outside musicals. Moana featured music from America’s most popular Broadway composer at the apex of his fame, and yet Moana doesn’t rely on Lin-Manuel Miranda (or his co-contributors, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina). When Alan Menken was the most important person in the Disney Renaissance, you could count on these marvelous diegetic songs in the first two-thirds of the movie which would add important feeling to the story. The Little Mermaid needed “Part of Your World” to flesh out Ariel’s mind. Aladdin uses “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” to depict the scope of the Genie’s power, which makes it all the more alarming when he cannot stop Jafar in the late stages of the movie. The Hunchback of Notre Dame repeats desire in its several songs: the desire to escape in “Out There,” the desire to be safe in “God Help the Outcasts,” and flat-out sexual desire in “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire.”

In the Disney Neoclassical Period (let’s see that catch on in media outlets), which began with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, the focus on a single song has become stronger and stronger. Strong, if short of brilliant, soundtracks like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled have yielded to Frozen and Moana, in which a tune like “Let It Go” or “How Far I’ll Go” becomes the raison d’etre for the movie to be a musical at all. By cramming virtually all of the songs into the first half-hour of a ninety minute movie, there’s a limit to their usefulness and stickiness. By the time Moana comes home again, I’d forgotten about “Where You Are,” which is a song about living on that island and not leaving it for any reason. I’ve been on board the “musicals should rely heavily on reprises while using the same four or five themes at different tempos with changing lyrics” bandwagon for nearly a decade now, and Moana has an eye on “How Far I’ll Go” throughout. While I like the “How Far I’ll Go” reprises, they simply don’t fit into the movie by the time we get to them after so many capers; what are they doing besides financing Miranda’s son’s college fund?

In my Zootopia review, I wondered if Disney had figured out how to make the leap to non-musical comedies. Watching Moana, ostensibly a musical, confirmed my suspicions. Disney movies are deeply concerned now with teasing their predecessors and have been for the past decade; the success of Enchanted ten years ago, around the nadir of Disney’s animated movies, proved that Disney could make hay if it had a sense of humor about itself. And so it’s become something of a rite of passage to elbow the old-fashioned ways in the ribs a little. Frozen has a scene in which Kristoff is aghast that Anna would decide to marry a guy she just met; Zootopia makes a “let it go” joke. Moana pointedly asserts that she’s the daughter of a chief, not a king, meaning she’s not a princess; Maui’s rebuttal is that she’s wearing a dress and has an animal sidekick, ergo princess. Musicals are fragile entities, as anyone with a sitcom has pointed out. Notice that people are singing and dancing outside of scenarios in which they’d usually sing or dance and people get nervous; call too much attention to your musical, or your musical heritage, and things fall apart. Moana isn’t Spamalot or Something Rotten!, which exist because we like spoofs, and so it kicks out the fourth wall without having any plan to fix that wall once they’ve busted it. (A little off-topic, but it deserves to be said: the fact that The Book of Mormon spoofs as well as it does without becoming distracting or losing its own plot is a minor miracle. “Ma’haneibu Eebowai,” indeed.)

There are three scenes in Moana which stand out to me, all of which are visual feasts. I was struck by the scene in which Tui (Temuera Morrison) shows Moana (Cravalho) the sacred place where each chief of the island has laid a stone. It’s an incredibly pink moment; the clouds are much the same color as the inside of the conch shell that Moana will place on top of her father’s stone near the end of the movie; compared to the greens and blues which naturally dominate this movie, that rich pink color is so unusual. I didn’t think much of “You’re Welcome,” which for all I know might actually be a pretty okay song but no one would know because all of the lyrics, as I remember them, are “Dwayne Johnson is rapping? He can hit that note? Does Dwayne Johnson usually have this much falsetto in his life? When he runs for president in 2020, will we all have to reckon with the fact that he voiced a character in a Disney movie?” But I did like the backdrop that Maui’s song creates on his sad deserted island.

It lasts less than a minute, but we get this unusual textural effect in which our CGI characters are wandering around in someone’s diorama; it was like Little Big Planet, which holds a warm place in my heart. There are intricate woodcut-style backgrounds and cutouts of happy bodies. It’s whimsical and feels genuinely original; it was the only animation in this movie that surprised me with its newness, which is a hard thing for an animated movie to do anymore. It also has the added bonus of being relevant to the plot of the movie. Moana herself is so drawn into this world that Maui appears to be creating that she allows herself to be fooled by the demigod en route to being briefly trapped in a cave.

My favorite scene from a visual perspective, though, is Lalotai, where a giant treasure-obsessed crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) is squirreling away Maui’s magic fishhook. (I was put in the mind of Wallace Stevens seeing Tamatoa’s encrusted shell: “A dragon and a crab/Are one./The Nibelungienlied and Moana and a blackbird/Are one.”) Tamatoa lives in the “Realm of the Monsters,” which not only brings pink back into the mix – albeit more “hot pink” than “coral” – but sets up this surreal aphotic hellscape in neons. It’s beautiful to look at but clearly not meant to remind us of a real place, and the number of throwaway monsters around every corner enforces that perspective. I’m personally fond of the many-eyed bats which are flying around…underwater but not? Whatever kind of ecosystem Lalotai is, it’s too fun and bizarre to abide by “environmental science,” which is great.

If we lambaste movies which fail to cast their actors for the ethnicity of the characters, then we should also praise movies which do the right thing. And so it is that just about every character who speaks recognizable human language in this movie about ancient Polynesians is voiced by someone of Pacific Islander descent. Clement, Morrison, and House (who voices Moana’s grandmother) all have Maori ancestry. Johnson is part Samoan. Cravalho and Nicole Scherzinger, who voices her mom, have Native Hawaiian blood. The only obvious exception is Alan Tudyk, who makes chicken sounds in his role as Heihei, the eternally concussed rooster, and so I’m not liable to get wound up over his inclusion on the movie’s payroll. The enduring lesson to take from this is that if we’re this concerned about casting people with the right backgrounds for roles in which those people’s bodies never show up in the movie itself, we ought to be even more mindful about appropriately meeting the racial and ethnic requirements for roles in live-action movies and television.

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