Moana

a.k.a. when you name your heroine after a porn star you’re looking for trouble I like cartoons and I’m not ashamed of saying it. At the risk of shocking you, I was a kid too. And, even more shocking, I actually was a girl. Yeah. I know. Therefore not only I like cartoons but I […]

a.k.a. when you name your heroine after a porn star you’re looking for trouble

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I like cartoons and I’m not ashamed of saying it. At the risk of shocking you, I was a kid too. And, even more shocking, I actually was a girl. Yeah. I know. Therefore not only I like cartoons but I like Disney cartoons. Hence my recent shock and anger in seeing what the Company seems to be willingly sailing towards to.

Because I like cartoons, I am actually scared of going to the theatres to see them. Just imagine if I had gone to see Frozen back in the days. I would have either fallen asleep of thrown something at the screen. A great majority of cartoons I am seeing recently seems unbearably shallow to me. “That’s because you are too old for cartoons”, you might say. That’s possibly true. But I’m not too old for videogames, Lego and stuffed toys, so I don’t see how can I possibly be too old for cartoons. It’s cartoons that are too young for me, maybe.

So, I approached Moana (Oceania in Italy because of the reason I explained you above the picture) with mixed feelings. Also because I can’t seem to come to terms with digital animation. Or at least I couldn’t, before Moana.

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Storywise, Moana is a simple Disney tale. It has your average princess (chief’s daughter), your average quest, your average funny animal-sidekick, your average conflictual relationship with a parent (and then you’re still surprised they bought Star Wars). What it doesn’t have is the love story (no, it doesn’t) and… well… a villain. I already talked about the lack of conflict within recent stories, the fact that everything seems to be more reassuring and washed down so that parents will not whine, but astonishingly this is not the case. Because even if it doesn’t have a proper villain, Moana does have tension. With the usual stuff, of course: it talks about identity, about finding yourself, about confidence, with a spark of ecology and respect. And it is rather odd that lots of the bad reception this movie received was, indeed, about identity. You might remember the fuss about the Halloween costume. And see this, for instance, written by a Polynesian journalist.

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Now, I understand that simplifications hurt, expecially if you come from a somewhat endangered culture. I understand and they have my sympathy. They are right when they say that Moana is predominantly Samoan, that the movie pictures all Polynesians as if they were all the same, that it’s a simplification of a complex culture, and everything else. What they fail to see is that they are no more special than everybody else. They are just as special as the French (I am thinking Ratatuille), as the Native Americans (does Pocahontas ring a bell?), as the Chinese (Mulan, anybody?), and I am not saying a word about how you people seem to think that Italians are all like… well, ok, I said I wasn’t going to say it and I am not going to say it. What’s my point? Well, my point is that it’s a tale. It’s simple because it’s a tale. Of course I would have preferred for a little more work to go into anthropological research, but that’s just my personal taste. I don’t believe I would have been more informed about Polynesian cultures had Moana been more accurate. And you know why? Because its job is not to inform: its job is to make you curious. After seeing Moana, you might want to hit the Discovery Channel and watch a documentary about Polynesians. I would consider that a success, wouldn’t you? And then you would be informed. Now you miht argue that Disney’s approach towards foreign cultures is orientalistic. You would be right. And that is downright racist, correct, but it’s the kind of racist I can deal with because it’s the curious kind. Superficial? Sure. But it can generate a positive push towards knowledge. The alternaive is that all this whining about how superficial Disney is towards foreign cultures would drive them towards making stories only about American girls (as if all Americans were the same, by the way). That would be dreadful.

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Although I have to admit that they went a little too far with the cocunut song.

So, did I like Moana as a character? Well, yeah, although the princess isn’t usually my favourite and this makes no exception. With her, they tried again what they tried to do with Merida in Brave: the daughter of the chief has her own inclinations and they are different from what it’s expected of her, although Moana doesn’t have the feminist twist and I rather liked that the fact she’s going to be a woman chief doesn’t bother anyone. It’s not even raised as an issue. It’s completely normal. The issue here is tradition vs. adventure, being safe or being brave, being able to change in order to survive, and the really clever thing is that they take an angle that doesn’t aim to subvert traditions (that would have been upsetting for Polynesians, I bet): the change actually resides into digging up the roots of your own culture, finding out where you come from and embracing it fully, without fear. It’s not a bad message. Aestetically the character is well built and those hair must not have been easy to animate. Of course she’s unsexualized but I don’t think this has anything to do with her being coloured, as has been suggested. It’s a trend. I am neither in favour nor against it. It simply is. But I wouldn’t go ss far as saying that she doesn’t have a love interest: her true love, just as in the Looking Glass‘ song, is the sea. And even if the sea acts more like a helper, like Aladdin‘s magic carpet, eveything revolves around that.

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The second character is Maui and to me he seemed to be the real novelty of the movie. He is not a hero and he’s not a villain, he’s hardly a helper, he’s not a comic sidekick and he’s a little bit of all these things. He has a bit of Hercules and of Genie, a Promethean Protean figure as he have hardly seen before. He is taken from an actual character of Polynesian mythology, hook and everything, with different versions of his tale being told by Maori, Hawaiian, Mangarevan, Tahitian, and Tongan, among others. What all these myths seem to have in common is the tale about him fishing up the coral islands from the bottom of the sea. Not all these cultures give him the hook (Manaiakalani for the Hawaiians), and this article explores the differences and similarities between the myth and Disney’s take on it. If you want to have some real fun, read up about the Maori legend of him trying to make manking immortal by turning into a worm and entering some Goddess’ you-know-what. Doesn’t end up well. Anyway, Dwayne Johnson does an incredible job in voicing him and I know I shouldn’t be surprised but he can sing too.

The third main character (beware, spoilers ahead) is Te Fiti, the Mother Island, and she seems to be straight out of a Myazaki movie. She seems to take up a lot of the work that went into Fantasia 2000‘s Firebird Suite with both of the main characters being pulled into one. The artwork for the sleeping islans is graceful and amazing.

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Also, credits are due for Tamatoa, the jeweled crab, the closest thing you have to a villain, amazingly voiced by Jemaine Clement, and the coconut pirates. They too are the closest thing you get to a villain, if only they weren’t so cute. And if you were missing Pocahontas‘ Grandmother Willow, you have your Polynesian version here, voced by Rachel House and partially tailored on her. Oh, and a pig. They also have a pig.

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The animation technique has nice touches and an attention to textiles that is almost moving. There were lot of difficoult stuff to animate, from the sea to hair, gowns and flowers. Still, provided that I usually hate digital animation, I found this to be absolutely delightful and I regret not having seen this on the big screen: I bet the sailing scenes were marvellous. Also, songs were decent enough. Overall, a damn fine cartoon indeed.

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