Since the bad old days of the 1950s, the House of Mouse has had a fair bit of karmic debt to pay down, when it comes to the depiction of ethnic minorities and women. Happily, Disney started to “get it,” and in recent years, progressive parents have been able to feel less queasy about their daughters wanting to don princess garb for Halloween. With movies like Brave, Tangled and Frozen, passivity is out. In the studio’s latest, Moana, not only is female adolescent rebellion in; so also are brown skin and sturdy-rather-than-willowy limbs.
Best of all, for the first time ever in a girl-centered Disney animated feature, the heroine’s marriageability doesn’t even come up. Young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a chieftain’s daughter, is his uncontested heir, and amply demonstrates her leadership qualities among her people even before she takes off on her hero’s journey. When she comes to grips with her male ally/antagonist, the boastful disgraced demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), there’s nary a whiff of romance in the air. Moana is all about saving her fellow islanders from creeping environmental disaster and restoring their abandoned heritage of being the best seat-of-the-pants transoceanic navigators the planet has ever known. That she happens to be a girl is incidental; but that makes her the coolest role model for girls that the Disney folks have yet produced.
The feminist icing on this coconut cake is the grounding of the tale in Polynesian creation myths in which the Prime Mover is a goddess, Te Fiti. Restoring Te Fiti’s heart, a green stone talisman stolen by Maui long ago, is Moana’s mission. The theme of an ancient matriarchy is reinforced by the recurring inspirational presence of Gramma Tala, the self-described “village crazy lady” who shares her granddaughter Moana’s spiritual connection with the sea. Portrayed by Rachel House, the Maori actress who was such a hoot in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, wise, gentle, flaky Gramma Tala upstages every other character every time she’s onscreen. She’s the fairy godmother that every adventurous girl deserves. When Tala’s not around, Moana gets assistance from the sea itself: a genderless presence, but very much a saucy character in its own right. Her obligatory comic sidekick is a ridiculous, witless, nonverbal chicken, thankfully free of the saccharine cutesiness of the talking, singing snowman in Frozen.
Moana represents some headway in terms of paydown of karmic debt on Disney’s depiction of indigenous peoples as well. This time around, the studios took the time to research Pacific Island cultures in some depth, sending directors Ron Clements and John Musker on fact-finding tours of Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti and other islands, recruiting a team of local experts dubbed the Oceanic Story Trust and tweaking many a detail based on their anthropological and folkloric input. Their diligent homework shows in such tasty details as the elaborately decorated barkcloth fabric that the characters wear and in Maui’s hand-animated tattoos (who serve as his sometimes-balky conscience).
Nearly all the cast members have family origins in Oceania; and the songs draw as much uplift from the pan-Pacific fusion of Opetaia Foa’I as they do wit from the deft lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s no big ballad here likely to weary the ear with relentless repetition as did Frozen’s “Let It Go,” but the entire score has a bouncy catchiness that will, one hopes, entice viewers to go out and explore the world of Pacific traditional music much further on their own.
Most moviegoers, of course, don’t base their consumer choices primarily on questions of political correctness. But there’s a bit of comfort in knowing that some viewers out there who might normally avoid a movie like Moana, for the very reasons that it deliberately celebrates girl power and doesn’t condescend to brown people, will be seduced by its upbeat message, music and the almost-palpable textures of its outstanding CGI animation once their kids manage to drag them to a matinée.
To read more of Frances’ movie reviews, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com.