Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Moana

Okay, so I’m kind of behind on this one.  With a posting schedule of once each calendar week, sometimes things fall behind.

Anyway, as everybody knows, Disney recently released its new animated movie Moana.  The story follows a young girl and future chief from the Pacific Island of Matanui as she defies her father to sail off in search of the demigod Maui to make him return an item he stole from the mother island of Tafiti.

This is the one I’ve been waiting for.  Say what you will about Disney, but they’re often the most interesting when they’re introducing the wider world to lore and literature that they might not have known about before.  At least, to those of us who are folklore buffs.  They did it before with movies like Mulan and now Moana is introducing people beyond the Pacific to the legends and myths about Maui.

What did I think?

Honestly, I loved it.  The film is beautiful.  The cast does amazing work voicing the various characters.  Dwayne Johnson brings his usual charisma to the character of Maui.  The real stand out is newcomer Auli’I Cravalho who voices Moana herself.  Expect big things from her.  The music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina is great.  My favorite is probably “You’re Welcome”, Maui’s song which actually references about five or six different stories about Maui (Zalka Csenge outlines that on her blog HERE).  And yes, the movie has gotten praised for centering on a strong heroine and showcasing non-White, non-European cultures.  The movie’s a great time.  Go see it if you haven’t yet.

Honestly, the biggest criticism I’ve seen of it from the critics is that it feels too traditionally “Disney”.  Pretty much every online critic I watch (Black Nerd, Doug Walker, MovieBob, etc) has pretty much echoed the idea that the story follows almost every traditional Disney trope about the strong, young princess defying her strict parent to follow her heart, etc.

But I ask, is that really a bad thing?  Or at least, might it be a good thing to some audiences?

Maybe I’m not a particularly good reviewer (and I will cop to this since I kind of fell into this whole thing).  However, while watching the film I didn’t notice how familiar the story was at all.  Perhaps it’s because for a kid who grew up with the “Disney Renaissance”, the formula was kind of comforting.  Heck, in his review Doug Walker talks about the “Disney Checklist” and how you can check off all the tropes as you go along.  But the only time that’s ever happened to me while watching a Disney film was when I watched Frozen, which made a point of subverting a whole lot of the tropes.  By subverting the tropes all they did was call attention to them which ended up pulling me out of the film and made it difficult for me to enjoy it.  Moana doesn’t subvert anything.  It plays it straight and I’m fine with that.  There are a couple of little things I noticed.  I give the movie props for actually making Moana good at things.  Remember in Mulan how Mulan wasn’t very good at meeting with the matchmaker before she left and wasn’t very good at being a soldier until she went through a music montage’s worth of training?  Moana doesn’t do that.  She’s actually a very good leader-in-training.   Making her incompetent would have been a really easy way of showing how she “doesn’t fit in”.  Instead, it’s just her wanderlust that sets her apart.  The one place where I could criticize this movie with sticking to formula is the inclusion of Moana’s animal sidekick Hei-Hei, who is pretty much useless.  They could have done without him (I’m still amazed that they hired Alan Tudyk from Firefly to voice him.  Who hires such a good actor to just make clucking noises?).

My biggest letdown regarding this movie isn’t about this movie itself.  It’s about how no one else jumped on the bandwagon.  I was hoping once word came out that Disney was basing a movie around myths and folklore from the Pacific Islands that publishers would rush to put out books of Polynesian folklore and legends.  But I’ve been to the bookstores and there’s nothing.  It’s not to say you can’t find anything, but it takes some digging.  Before the movie came out, I tried reading Hawaiian Folk Tales by Thomas J. Thrum and found it a bit hard to get through as an outsider.  The combination of names I couldn’t pronounce and unfamiliar mythology made the learning curve a bit too steep for me.   Of far greater help was YouTube, which hosts a number of animations based on Maori legends adapted by Peter Gossage.  Here you can find stories like “Maui and the Sun” and “The Fish of Maui”.  Also, apparently a story entitled The Magic Jawbone collected by Hartwell James is accessible on  I haven’t read it yet but it could be good.

Yes, the best image I could find was a cereal box.  Thanks for asking.
Anyway, it’s been suggested to me by a colleague that those of us who are folklore savvy look into some indigenous reviews to find out what they did well.  I tried to find some but came up a bit short.  Maybe my readers can offer some help (post any links you have in the comments below).  The main thing I did find was that many people have criticized Maui’s design as looking too overweight.  Near as I can tell, that’s probably more because of the visual shortcuts taken in animation than any ignorance or intended insult.  Animation tends to depict strength through sheer size and they tend to use rounder shapes and softer textures to communicate that someone is “nice” or “lovable”.  So, Disney’s attempt at making Maui look like a lovable strong-man rather than a big, scary antagonist ended up making him look kind of chubby.    

But anyway, if you still haven’t seen it, go see Moana.  Heck, I may go see it a second time.

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