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Reviewed by:
  • Moana by Ron Clements and John Musker
  • Gerry Canavan (bio)
Moana (Ron Clements and John Musker US 2016). Walt Disney Studies 2017. Region 1. 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. US$29.95.

Like its predecessor Frozen (Buck and Lee US 2013), Moana seeks to update the gender politics of the 'Disney Princess' genre while at the same time going further in its transposition of the princess fantasy to the South Pacific, with all-Polynesiasn characters and a predominantly Hawaiian and South Pacific voice cast (the only actor lacking nonwhite ancestry is Alan Tudyk, voicing the wordless chicken Heihei). In the syncretic mythic past of the film, Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho in her debut film) is treated not only as the coequal of the men around her but as their superior in nearly every respect: she is smarter, braver, kinder, more resilient, and more athletic than anyone else in the film, including her chieftain father. The immortal demigod Maui (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson), while undoubtedly stronger and a better sailor (at least until he teaches her), is egomaniacal and selfish, a coward, and emotionally devastated by parental abandonment, needing constant reaffirmation to even approach basic functionality. Moana's eventual ascension to chief and her suitability to the position are beyond question, and the issue of marriage and reproduction is (for once) bracketed nearly entirely by the film; there is barely even the hint of a romance plot. Like Frozen's Elsa (Idina Menzel), Moana sings of her inability to be 'perfect', but unlike Elsa this is not couched in an inferiority complex or a disability metaphor; Moana is simply called [End Page 139] to adventure on the high seas, a better destiny her loving but overprotective father (Temuera Morrison, who played Jango Fett in the Star Wars prequels) denies because of his own bad experiences trying to leave the island as a youth. But when the time comes, Moana inevitably goes anyway, notably aided and abetted by two other key female characters: her mother (Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger) and grandmother (New Zealand actress Rachel House).

Moana's call to heroism coincides with another point of overlap with Frozen: the redeployment of the Disney Princess for an era of climate change. Indeed, where Frozen was an inverted and somewhat disavowed climate change fantasy – everything gets cold instead of hot (which, incidentally, might be what actually happens to Northern Europe if the Atlantic gets so warm the Gulf Stream shuts down), and it happens because of a vague magical curse that can be attributed only very loosely to bad parenting – Moana plays the allegory much more straight. One thousand years ago the mythic shapeshifting hero Maui stole a magic gem from the nature goddess Te Fiti, who takes the form of the island from which all life in the world seems to have descended. Maui's motives here, despite his hunger for glory, were mostly pure; he intended to give the gem and its power to create life to humanity as a gift, the same way he had previously lassoed the sun to extend their days and stole fire from hell to warm their nights. But Maui is attacked by a lava monster as he leaves Te Fiti and in the battle loses both the gem and the magic fishhook that gives him his powers. In the millennium since, the world has grown increasingly sick; humanity has abandoned its natural drive to explore and has retreated to its last enclave, the primitive communist paradise Motunui, and is no longer able to leave the safety of its barrier reef. As the story opens, the world-sickness is now coming even to Motunui; its fish are dying, its coconuts are rotting from the inside.

The ocean chooses Moana as its instrument to restore the balance of nature, magically endowing her with Te Fiti's long-lost magical gem. Her grandmother instructs her to take the tribe's long-hidden boats, which can cross the reef, and take the gem to Maui – who has been trapped on the tiny island he crashed on after the battle for the last thousand years, because, as his wonderfully infectious introductory song announces, 'Maui can do...


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pp. 139-143
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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