In the interest of elaborating my inherent biases, Moana provides a perfect opportunity to reiterate that, as your standard issue curmudgeon, I bear little affinity for musicals and even less for Disney Princess films. That said, even my entrenched reticence was won over by Moana — a pleasant departure from the megalomaniacal Mouse’s monopolistic modus operandi, at least insofar as the studio seems to be turning its attention away from the usual roster of boy-crazy euro-centric heroines. Or maybe they just recognize the largely untapped potential for more ethnically diverse subjects to be similarly monetized. My cynical suspicions not withstanding, the film is original and engaging enough that kids will adore it and parents are likely to find it better than tolerable. In short, I liked it.
Despite the deep antipathy I harbor for Disney’s domination of the childhood moviegoing landscape, I can’t deny a begrudging respect for the well-oiled machine of emotional manipulation that the studio’s films represent. Perhaps more than any other body of cinematic work, Disney’s animated output has incorporated the behavioral psychological models of Skinner or Pavlov into their creative process, adroitly commandeering the heartstrings of global youth and tugging them with remarkable precision and efficacy. When an expository origin story conveyed by a matronly village elder to a group of wide-eyed youngsters got a little scary, an infant in the screening I attended began to wail inconsolably. As if on cue, the film cut to its onscreen audience to show a similarly disquieted kid, and the overlapping screams were eerily coordinated enough that I began to wonder if the initial cries I had heard were just some new sound design trick cooked up by Dolby. Veteran Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Alladin, The Little Mermaid) know exactly which buttons they’re pressing, and their mastery of when and how hard to press them never ceased to amaze me.
The one child in that onscreen audience with no fear of the giant lava monster in Grandma’s tale is our protagonist Moana, voiced ably by newcomer Auli’i Carvalho. The daughter of her island community’s chieftain and heir to the throne, it falls to Moana to find a solution for a failing coconut crop and depleted fishing resources by violating a longstanding prohibition against voyaging beyond the island’s protective reef. It just so happens that the community’s imperiled state has resulted from the actions of arrogant demigod Maui (expertly embodied by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), whose theft of a mystical talisman from an island goddess led to the reawakening of the aforementioned lava monster. These stories are somewhat liberally adapted from the mythology of the South Pacific islanders, and Clements and Musker’s decision to employ historical antecedents in their world-building imparts an added level of complexity to the standard Disney tropes they’re otherwise working with. When Moana must predictably enlist the help of Maui to restore the islanders’ way of life, the context becomes equal to the content in a way that few other examples of Disney animation ever achieve.
The musical numbers — a central focus of all films of this ilk — left me predictably flat, but your mileage will probably vary. I can recognize from an objective perspective the technical virtuosity of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s work with composer Mark Mancina, but I was far more engaged with the indigenous musical stylings imparted to the score by New Zealand folk-fusion musician Opetaia Foa’i. As is so often the case, I found myself wondering how much story would be left if the musical numbers were cut (I’m guessing about forty minutes), but Foa’i’s work is novel enough to my western sensibilities that I was consistently intrigued, and found Jemaine Clement’s suitably bizarre and Bowie-esque “Shiny” as close to enjoyable as possible for such an endeavor.
Moana abandons the obligatory princess tropes, with no princes to pine for and no intimations of elitist entitlement. Our plucky protagonist has to acquire life skills beyond the nebulous standards of “friendship” or “confidence” to complete her quest, and if the story mechanics are pure Maslow, the story itself is more indebted to Jung and Joseph Campbell. Moana goes on a classically structured Hero’s Journey, retrieving the boon that will save her idyllic island from the ravages of deeply inured apathy by voyaging not only without, but within. As such, Moana is a more intricately layered piece of psychological storytelling than many of its predecessors, a virtue that would likely have garnered my recommendation even if the film weren’t so enjoyable on a more superficial basis. Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher.