Confession time: I wasn’t terribly excited about seeing the latest Disney-Pixar animated movie, Moana. Here’s why.
I saw the trailer several times over the past few weeks/months and the clips I saw smacked of the the typical, formulaic kids movie. Spunky young girl who has lessons to be learned, defies her father, has a goofy animal sidekick, and overcomes adversity.
Sound about right?
Well, to be honest, that IS what pretty much happened but this movie felt in no way formulaic. I still haven’t decided if it was the setting (Oceania), the characters (young girl Moana and demigod Maui), the folklore behind the story, or the once again stunningly visual aspects of the film. So let’s talk about all of them.
Oceania is really the foundation for the entire film. Instead of thinking of the thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean, the residents of the area consider themselves part of a whole that’s unified by the ocean, hence the name Oceania. When directors Ron Clements and John Musker were greenlighted for the project, they traveled to Oceania to become immersed in the culture (not a bad gig, eh?).
In addition to spending time as observers on all of these islands, they were determined to stay true to the culture:
Deeply inspired by their time in the Pacific Islands, filmmakers continued to work with several of the people they met within their trips. This group of advisors came to be known as the Oceanic Story Trust (OST). The Trust includes anthropologists, educators, linguists, master tattooists, choreographers, haka practitioners, master navigators and cultural advisors who collaborated with Disney’s creative team.
The attention to detail is what made me curious about the authenticity of the film. So I read enough to know that Maui is indeed a demigod of the Oceanic culture. He’s considered “the Oceanic Trickster god” according to some sources. And because he was so well-known, they wanted to make sure they captured his essence perfectly.
Enter Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is credited simply as Dwayne Johnson. Not only does he bring his personality to the role but he fits the part by marrying his Samoan heritage and wrestling past into one big crazy but likable (but not always) demigod. And he, too, has lessons to learn.
The real star of the film, though, is Moana (pronounced Mo-ANA). Now that you know how to say her name, the title of this post might make a little more sense.
Moana is voiced by newcomer and Hawaii native Auli‘i Cravalho. She not only resembles the character of Moana but she also mirrors her spirited personality. Moana is beautiful but not in an unrealistic Disney way. And while she is strong, she’s not invincible and her flaws only lend to the story.
The characters, beautifully woven story, and cultural richness of the film had me wondering what was true and what wasn’t.
Were Oceanic ancestors really voyagers and explorers like the film claims?
Yes! Ron Clements says, “Voyaging is a real source of pride for Pacific Islanders, a part of their identity. They were, and continue to be, some of the greatest explorers of all time. This wayfinding sense is not only quite sophisticated, it is miraculous.”
Are tattoos really as elaborate and significant as what we saw in the film, especially on Maui?
In Samoa, tattoos are considered a right of passage and Samoans have to earn the right to be tattooed traditionally. Filmmakers met with tattooist Su’a Peter Sulu‘ape, who taught them that the skill of giving a tattoo is passed down through generations and the symbols themselves typically have very specific meanings, including powerful qualities like strength, unity, family and spirituality.
Does the story have any foundation either in truth or folklore?
Maui is indeed a real figure in Oceanic folklore and Disney-Pixar wanted to make sure that portrayed him in a way that would capture his spirit and essence from the many stories passed down for generations.
As for the rest of the story, it’s only know that there’s a 2000 year gap in the great voyages and exploration by the Oceanic people that has never been explained. Maybe Maui really is a mischief maker…
But there’s one more reason you wanna see Moana and that’s so you can hear Moana. This is certainly a musical much like another very famous animated movie musical that was released around Thanksgiving. But this musical caters to the Hamilnerds (those who like, listen to, or are COMPLETELY OBSESSED with Hamilton the Musical).
With Lin-Manual Miranda co-writing many of the songs, you’ll not only hear his influence throughout the soundtrack but you’ll even hear his voice! It was an absolute joy to hear his style of writing and singing in a whole new genre. Well done on that account, Disney. (Truth be told, I’ve already preordered the soundtrack set for a release of 11/18).
The only sad part is that my son, who was supposed to accompany me to the preview of this movie, didn’t feel well enough to make the journey and attend. I hesitated to go to a “kids movie” by myself but I knew I wanted the chance to see and review it.
Yes, I’m glad I went. I cried. I got chills. And I might even be making plans to see it again over the Thanksgiving weekend. And judging by the age range of the audience (from the young to the very old), maybe you should too.