Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Curse of Moana

Some days, I seem cursed by the fates themselves. After being emotionally coerced into spending one of my precious few yearly movie theatre outings on a children's movie, the animal-karaoke-showcasing Sing, I was hit with a double-whammy when I found myself out with the kids once again, this time for Disney's latest, Moana. Mother. Fucker. This time, I was completely cut out of the decision-making loop as my wife made plans with a friend family to meet for lunch at East Side Mario's (Apparently to take advantage of some strange deal where you buy an entree at regular price and get a frozen entree for free to take home, just to really hammer home how much you hate yourself. I guess it's one way for a restaurant chain to clear out expired stock from their freezer...) and then go catch a movie. For the kids. Think of the children.

Disney, proving once again that there is literally no culture that they aren't will to appropriate, this time around they "draw inspiration" from Polynesian mythology to craft a tale of--everyone together now--a young princess's journey of self discovery where she seeks to expand her worldview and ends up either finding contentment in the pastoral home from which she originally sought escape and assuming her rightful place at the top of the Great Chain or Being and/or proving herself worthy to and being whisked away by a member of a royal family and assuming her rightful place at the top of the Great Chain of Being.

In this case, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) must disobey her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), because of course she does, in an effort to save her island and tribe from a terrible blight by returning the heart of the goddess Te Fiti that was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). It's a fairly straightforward plot, though it felt like it took a long time for Moana to get her ass in gear and actually head out on her tribe-saving/life-altering journey.

And right on cue..
Moana's is an island people, though they have strict rules about venturing out on the water, due to what we find out is the Chief's loss of a childhood friend in a boating accident. It seems pretty selfish of the Chief to forbid his people from heading out on the high seas for adventure or to spread their seed among other lands, but I guess as the head of state in a non-democratic oligarchy he can do whatever he wants, for good or ill. Honestly, though, I can kind of understand Moana's hesitation; if the head of my state was motherfucking Jango Fett, I'd be inclined not to disobey him either.

Moana was touted as a break from the traditional Disney princess narrative in that she didn't need social validation from a romantic counterpart, and indeed, there is no romantic subplot. Despite this avoidance of the awkward way that Disney always tries to sidestep the question of sex while dealing with romantic or parental relationships of any kind, I don't know if this movie was any less problematic thematically speaking than any other Disney film.

Despite the fact that even without being involved in any romantic entanglements Moana still must rely on a man to help her, in this case the demigod Maui. She also must disobey her father, the chief. It's nice that Disney is making an effort, but it seems that they still inadvertently defined the female lead directly in relation to how the main male characters perceived and/or treated her. Nothing says "female empowerment" better than being forced to build your identity in terms of validation from the men in your life. The only saving grace was Moana's relationship with her grandmother, who dies and reincarnates as a magical manta ray, but even still, the grandmother is relegated to outsider status.

"I want to be part of your waterworld!" No wait...
"There must be more than this small island life!" Better.
I'm not arguing that Moana is particularly problematic when viewed through a feminist lens, or more problematic than usual; I'm simply pointing out that Disney tried to remedy the one part of their boilerplate narrative that they thought was particularly glaring and ended up failing gloriously for not really understanding what was at issue in the first place. Besides which, the main problem with the standard princess narrative template is that it's just plain boring. And no, Disney, you don't get points for having one of your main characters literally and rather clumsily point out the Disney princess trope in the middle of the movie. That's just... I mean... Do you even metanarrative, bro?

If you're looking to impress audiences, do something different. And if you're intent on appropriating a culture, why not appropriate a culture that really deserves it? Disney princess-ize Nazi Germany. If you're going to bastardize history, why not bastardize it to give the Jews a happy ending? Picture this: Eva Braun in the summer of 1939 longing for adventure when she meets a dashing young politician named Adolf. They go on marvelous adventures until she realizes that he wants to steal magic nectar or some shit from magical tree elves, or whatever Disney stand-in for the Jews that they want to use. If the forest it cut down, the elves lose their magic and become mortal.

Young Eva gets in contact with Allied forces and offers to help stop Prince Adolf from the inside, even though she can't help but love him. Then you've got a cat and mouse game where Adolf is trying to find out who's leaking information about his plans and Eva is desperately trying to stay one step ahead and trying to convince Prince Adolf to abandon his plans and run away with her. Then the final confrontation where Eva must stop the only man she ever loved--or ever will love--by forcing him into a vat of boiling magic nectar. There's a fucking movie, Disney.

Did somebody mention the power of love?
I think we've got that new sound you've been
looking for...
Moana's only saving grace for me (aside from having Jemaine Clement show up as a giant, evil, singing crab monster) was the resolution of the conflict with the giant lava monster that kept trying to stop Moana and Maui from returning Te Fiti's heart. It turns out that the lava monster was Te Fiti herself, who apparently underwent a psychotic break after Maui stole her heart-stone, and then was chasing the heart-stone down to return it to herself, yet fighting back against Moana and Maui from trying to do exactly that... OK, that major logical inconsistency aside, it was cool that the conflict was solved not by meeting violence with violence, but by love and understanding. Moana sings her little song and returns the heart and all is right with the world. I could see some parallels between the resolutions of conflict between Moana and Return of the Jedi where Luke Skywalker also triumphs not through violence but through strength of character.

Just more of me to love... Wait can I say that?
Do we own The Simpsons yet?
The other main issue that I kept hearing about Moana was Maui's body type, which apparently could be interpreted as a racially stereotypical depiction of a Polynesian person. Honestly, I was never that up to date on my knowledge of racial stereotypes, having learned the majority of them from watching Chappelle's Show. So, I can't really comment on Maui's body image from a racial perspective, but from a sheer physical strength perspective, I thought that Maui's body was uncannily realistic. If you ever watch the World's Strongest Man competition, you usually find that the strongest guys tend to have a body type and build more like Maui's than the Rock's, what with the barrel chest, no neck, and all.

At the end of the day, aside from a few small controversies, Moana ended up being just another standard Disney kids movie. It's the kind of homogenized fare that we're being bred to consume and have been bred to consume since Walt Disney first put pen to paper on that first Mickey Mouse cartoon and then his company honoured his legacy of appropriating and repurposing public domain fairy tales and legends by lobbying to twist the laws and ensure that Mickey and friends would never be allowed to enter that same public domain, for the most noble of purposes: making fuck-tonnes of money. Ever since then, we've allowed Disney to continue to buy up culture, piece by piece. They already own all of your favourite Jedi, and all of your favourite superheros except Batman (Admit it DC: Batman's all you've got. Shhhhh. There, there. There's still tons to milk from that cash cow.)

I'm not saying that there's no place for (largely) inoffensive, fairly derivative children's fare that can keep kids and adults engaged/distracted for a couple of hours. I guess what I am saying is, you get what you pay for. And--for better or worse--we've gotten our money's worth with Moana.


Moana was pretty standard Disney fare, though without the memorable tunes that were the hallmarks of the Disney Golden Age in the '90s. On the plus side, this might be the only artistic endeavour that unites the talents of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk, and Temuera "Jango Fett" Morrison. Final verdict is a 6/10 = One Demigod's Head Smirking as He Throws a Young Girl Into the Middle of the Ocean Not Knowing that an Anthropomorphic Body of Water Will Save Her Life


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