Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker is Disney's latest attempt at politically correct culturally sensitive storytelling. The results I'd say are better than anything the studio has ever done before, which if you know my history regarding all things Disney is saying something.
The filmmakers did research all right, from the look of the outriggers and huts to the beads round necks and tattoos on backs to the carefully woven skirts carefully worn to hide genitals (the actual women of course were topless--impossible if you want a PG rating, which in an animated movie made for American audiences you probably do). The characters' skins are a uniform dark chocolate brown, the lips thick the nose broad, the hair consistently curly. I'd go so far as to say looking at these folks I'd consider myself not out of place among them (only I can barely carry a tune, much less handle a canoe without drowning).
The story is a quest, a chief's young daughter named Moana seeking lost demigod Maui to restore the jewel he stole from island goddess Te Fiti (the last is a fictional creation but Maui--or a slimmer version at least--has basis in folklore). Demigod and debutante go forth in their outrigger to grapple with various dangers, from the Kakamoras (cute coconut-shell pirates sailing gigantic watercraft that looks as if Waterworld and Fury Road had collided in a lagoon) to the giant Tamatoa (basically the biggest Singaporean Chili Crab to ever climb out of a cooking pot--glows in the dark too).
All good fun. But after all is said and done and the end credits roll, why do you feel as if you've just chugged down a gallon of sugar-free soda and felt the urge to vomit?
Maybe because the movie's so relentless: the sky relentlessly blue, the water relentlessly clear; on Moana's island the village is so relentlessly tidy-clean the grass so impeccably manicured you could almost see tourists with leis sagging from their necks standing just out of camera range, taking selfies. Dietwise lot of emphasis is put on coconuts and maybe the occasional fish (saw a pig but since he's cute he's strictly off limits), with no sign or mention of the starches that make up the bulk of their diet (breadfruit, or taro root fermented to make poi). The filmmakers have done meticulous work but it's like a dim exchange student learning a new language via Rosetta Stone: they've developed a working vocabulary but the accent and rhythms and eloquence of the tongue are beyond them.
Other little details bother you. Moana is led into a hidden cave where she finds the seagoing vessels that carried her people to the island; she jumps into one and sails away (But if they've been sitting there for over a decade are they in any condition to sail?). Maui's a demigod with a body that looks less than divine--okay he's been stranded on an island for years without his magic hook (but is a castaway diet conducive to obesity?).
Niggling stuff but symptomatic of a more general malaise. Moana may be brownskinned and kinky-haired but she's basically your standard-issue Disney princess ("I'm the daughter of a chief!" she insists) repressed by a standard-issue stay-at-home dad (literally this time; he keeps repeating "don't go beyond the reef!" as if referring to Room 237 in The Shining). Later she's admonished by a standard-issue free-spirit grandmother who advises her to listen to her inner voices (Schizophrenia much?) and please go beyond the reefs (way to undermine dad, grandma).
If you've seen this all before that's because it's the same template used in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled, Frozen, etc. etc., the kind of simplistic by-the-numbers storytelling that's shriveled Disney movies since Fantasia failed in the boxoffice (and even that film, a collection of shorts, had its successful and less-than-successful bits). It's not that Disney movies have been elevated by Polynesian culture as Polynesian culture has been given the Disney treatment--bent over and from behind, shrieking to the tune of a Broadway-ready power ballad.
The finale (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie) is pretty much a fanfic appropriation of the films of Hayao Miyazaki: a lava monster photocopied from the God Soldier in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; Te Fiti laying herself down across a mountain range in imitation of the climactic gesture in Princess Mononoke; seawater--and sea creatures--that act and behave as if freshly escaped from a fishtank in Ponyo. But while the animated sequences might knock the socks off those who wouldn't know better, others will remember that the Diadarabotchi (inspiration for Te Fiti) gave and took life; its collapse creating fragile sprouts that are barely adequate replacement for the magnificent old-growth trees that stood there for thousands of years (in Moana the forest growth is instantly replaced, as if from a freshly downloaded killer app). Miyazaki recognizes that change comes at a cost, that something new is produced when something dies or is destroyed; in this movie you can almost hear the filmmakers saying "well it's almost a hundred minutes; time to wrap everything up in a perfectly packaged happy ending."
More than a lack of neatness Miyazaki privileges hard work commitment sacrifice over easy heroism; remember that in Spirited Away Sen manages to overcome opposition not through gymnastics or super sailing skills but through steady application of floor brush and soap, and the stubborn courage to insist on a job; remember that in Nausicaa the princess shows her commitment to nonviolence not through swordplay (the earlier fight was an aberration) but through firm stance and unflinching gaze. Moana is I suppose the perfect picture for young girls craving quickie empowerment fables; for a film that offers subtler pleasures I suggest looking elsewhere.
First published in Businessworld 12.1.16