Moana rehearses over and over again before meeting the great shape-shifting demigod Maui, “I am Moana.” “I am Moana.” “I am Moana.”
The directors of The Little Mermaid (and Princess and the Frog) approach this project with a sense of liberty. They don’t feel tied to musical numbers or romance but half the time, it feels like they’ve forgotten the great opportunity on their hands to showcase a culture that honestly doesn’t get enough representation in media. I doubt anybody remembers the musical numbers by name, but We Know The Way is an authentic musical number because it fully embraces the Hawaiian language and instruments custom to their heritage. And whether you personally like the piece or not (I know I did) it has to be insulting when this type of music is rapidly replaced by pop, Broadway, and jazz as the screenplay progresses. Why? Why did they do this? Think about what this suggests about Hawaiian culture.
This doesn’t play into the narrative that Disney tends for caricature when it comes to depicting cultures outside of the Western world. This feeds into the fact that they just don’t care.
Moana’s Part of Your World/Almost There in the form of How Far I’ll Go comes far too early and unjustified. Whereas Ariel and Tiana faced real opposition from their society to which they wanted to escape, Moana speaks on this innate affinity for the water. Just because the water becomes anthropomorphic for her doesn’t justify a big musical number. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.
Her father is a mild form of Triton, giving him just enough backstory to make him logical in his actions but not berserk enough to have Moana run away without external reason (or deal with the devil, for that matter). When her island’s food resources withers from strange anomalies, her dying grandmother spills Hawaiian folklore to initiate her long love affair with the sea and to answer her call for adventure.
I imagine if Belle were more able, this would be the adventure she would take and it’s nice to see it come to fruition. Moana’s journey, although bogged down by unnecessary details and uninteresting pit-stops, is absolutely stunning and lush. The sea truly forms as its own character, adding life and dimension to the story. Why is Moana the chosen one, asks Maui.
In many ways, Moana reminds me of Mulan. She constantly feels inferior to the male role models she looks up to, whether that is her father or Maui. Maui has to be one of the most confusing characters ever written by the Disney company. His self-exuberant motives are consistent throughout, but you have to wonder what drives him into thinking higher of the people below him. He too gets a backstory which is lazily integrated into the story and never feels like it fully resolves.
Still, this is Moana’s story, and she shares this beautiful moment with her grandma’s spirit off shore. And although none of the visuals are memorable or iconic, it is the only song that seems to answer the question: “Who am I?”
I am a girl who loves my island. I’m the girl who loves the sea. It calls me…
The real heart-beat of the story lies in the relationship between Moana and her grandmother, and I simply wished other tangential relationships were stripped down so their interaction could take center stage. I imagine if Gramma Tala’s death was more impactful, they could have magnified the effect intended from this song and crafted a truly powerful musical number.
But alas, without strong musical numbers to back-up characters who are poorly written and a story with little potential, Moana’s self-identity search is all we have left to keep us in our seats. She is a girl who loves her island. She’s the girl who loves the sea. It calls her…
In my mind, Moana represents the Hawaiian people. Their loyalty to their island, people, and family–their love for water and their call for adventure. I imagine that even if Disney didn’t properly represent their culture to mainstream America, they will appreciate this general characterization which is thankfully more sophisticated than the broad stroking of Native Americans as tree-hugging environmentalists as found in Pocahontas.
In the same breath, Moana also represents Disney’s constant ridiculing of their own princess brand and Disney’s erratic song choices in recent years. I think this is the first time in which I frequently identified Moana as being similar to another Disney princess. Although there is a noticeable omission of a popular Disney princess trope–that being the presence of a love interest–there is also the distinct omission of catchy musical numbers, likeable characters, and a magical story. To see critics be blind to such atrocities time and time again in 2016 has made this year one of my worst movie-going experiences I can recall. Go in with low expectations and maybe then you can shake off a fraction of the disappointment I felt while watching Moana travel miles and miles for ultimately nothing.