Film Review: Moana

Moana – pronounced not how it unfortunately looks in English, which puts me in mind of Mona the Teenage Witch, but Mo’ana – is, of course, Disney’s latest animated film. Its eponymous heroine is the daughter of a generic Polynesian chief who struggles, in classic Disney fashion, between her longing for the sea and her duty to her tribe, who she’ll lead one day. Her father, and most of the rest of the tribe (apart from her slightly bonkers granny) disapprove of the sea: it’s dangerous, and the island provides everything they could need. But when a mysterious, rotting blight threatens the fish and the crops, Moana sets out to find a legendary Polynesian figure – the trickster god Maui – and save her people.

There’s lots of obvious things to talk about here (which is to say, things that Disney wants us to talk about): the fact that this Disney heroine has no romantic interest and that her female-ness has nothing to do with becoming chief, the fact that the film’s set in Polynesia and lays claim to some level of accurate representation. (Although not very much: the production team’s much-feted cultural consulting apparently consisted of spending two weeks in Polynesia, and the film’s hype machine doesn’t seem quite aware of the fact that Polynesia is made up of a vast number of smaller cultures.)

Of course, because I am cynical and also a little bit pretentious, I’m wary of obviousness; it’s so often a diversionary tactic. One of the things the diversity hype is diverting us from is the fact that the plot is not only a fairly unembellished version of the classic struggle-between-duty-and-personal-life which has been around since Romeo and Juliet, it’s also quite culturally conservative in the end: Moana’s essentially acting to restore the status quo of her ancestors, who were travellers before they were stay-at-homes. I’m not saying these are problems, necessarily; at least not from a Western perspective. It’s partly because the film has such a classic, fairytale structure that it works as well as it does; together with its music and its rather unexpectedly lovely animation, it’s really quite wonderful.

I suppose what I am saying is that we have to treat Moana as a commercial product, certainly to a greater extent even than most other blockbusters. And markets are essentially conservative.

Look at that plot structure: that story of Moana’s rediscovery of her heritage, the fact that her ancestors were once seafarers and travellers. It’s triumphant, and slightly unusual for a narrative with a woman as its central character; and, in a certain light, you can read it as a narrative of diaspora, a rediscovery of links to a forgotten culture. Is it slightly problematic, then, that this story of immigrant experience is told by a group of white writers – writers who, further, have drastically simplified the real-life cultures it depicts?

That’s a virtually unanswerable question, I think, one that squirrels down into further questions of cultural privilege and what stories are for. Because you can also read Moana as a narrative that celebrates a culture and a history that’s rarely if ever depicted on screen: this Strange Horizons piece foregrounds responses from two reviewers who are from Polynesian cultures which both take this stance to some extent, and I don’t want to negate that response. I’m asking it here because – well, because I haven’t really finished thinking about Moana; because I think resisting the obvious narrative is important work in itself; because I think conversation, the generation of alternative readings, is one of the primary tasks of artistic (as opposed to commercial) production.

I liked Moana. It made me cry, a bit, with that pitch-perfect emotional structure, honed over decades to hit exactly the right storytelling notes. I think that Disney’s going in the right direction (as it did in Rogue One) even if I think it’s not perfect yet. I definitely think the fact that this film can even be made – even looks sellable to Disney – is an indication of progress somewhere, despite everything. And I think there’s more work still to do.

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