“There is no doubt that that residue of Hawaii will always stay with me, that it is part of my core and that what’s best in me and what’s best in my message is one that is consistent with the tradition of Hawaii.”
– (then-)Sen. Barack Obama (D-Il), Honolulu, Hi, December 2004
*I saw Moana on Sunday – 25 December 2016.
The Hawai’ian Islands occupy a peculiar place in US history. Indisputably an independent kingdom that was overthrown, the islands have traditionally represented a passport-free tropical paradise for the mainland states (themselves colonized by European invaders). But once the country got its first Hawai’ian-born president, suddenly the islands’ “legitimacy” was brought into question again.
Hawai’i is both familiar and foreign; assimilated, yet exotic; a playground for America’s elite, but home to some of the highest poverty levels in the country. It would take a delicate touch to tell a story that humanizes the native people of the Hawai’ian islands, a story so simple that children could grasp it. Thankfully, Disney specializes in those kinds of stories.
Moana Waialiki (Auli’i Cravalho) is the chief’s daughter on her small island. Her whole life, she’s been raised to prepare for the day when she’ll succeed her father. At the age of 16, she’s grown into a bright girl whom the islanders adore. But not even she can stop a famine that begins to infect the fish that live around the island. Against her father’s insular wishes, Moana sets sail from the island to find answers. Her quest leads her on an adventure that will test her resolve, try her ingenuity, and put her face-to-face with a narcissistic demi-god named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
Let’s be honest: Moana is, to be quite frank, the best non-Pixar-Disney film in almost 20 years. The studio has created some noteworthy blockbusters (Frozen, Big Hero 6), some so-so quality hits (The Princess and the Frog, Wreck-It Ralph), and even mediocre-to-terrible films that still made money (I’m lookin’ at you, Zootopia). But Moana is exemplary of the best the studio can do when everyone brings their A-game to the table: the characters are relatable; the story is entertaining; and the songs are still memorable days after seeing the film.
(Seriously, I can’t get this out of my head.)
The creators of Moana – who also created Princess…Frog and Zootopia (y’know, that supposedly anti-racism flick that was actually pretty damn racist?) – have done with Polynesian cutlture the same thing they’ve done with those of the Chinese in Mulan, Arabic in Aladdin, and even the French in Beauty and The Beast: streamlined and Westernized it whilst retaining its uniqueness. Granted, it’s all still through the problematic point-of-view of White American men, but one would be remiss not to acknowledge how well the effort was made.
The funny thing about Moana – both the eponymous character and the film – that its success will ultimately be used to conform to the Disney machine. Just as Mulan is always sold as a “Disney Princess” with nary a trace of warrior material in Disney Stores, so too will Moana be used for nothing more than to show girls how to be pretty. That’s just the nature of the beast. Nevertheless, the story crafted for introducing this new character is the kind of story this company does better than anyone.
Now here’s one half of Flight of The Conchords as a bejazzled sea snail. You’re welcome.
(Stay ‘til after the credits – this guy gets the best line in the film.)