What makes the perfect Disney movie?
Disney is probably the most mainstream of corporate media companies, and their films represent the times perfectly. So what do the great Disney films of each generation say about that generation? And what makes them great?
If it’s the animation, Moana is certainly at the forefront. The hair animation alone is breathtaking. The technical achievement is obvious from even the trailers.
So is it the music? Disney is known for its songs. Well, have no fear. While there might not be any Let It Go’s in the Moana soundtrack with Lin Manuel Miranda (disclaimer, I’m a huge Hamilton fan), the music hits the right beats and leaves a few memorable tunes in your head. (Although, side note- Moana not rapping in this movie, with music by Broadway’s rap king, is one of the biggest let-down of the years. And this is 2016. That’s a low bar.)
The plot? Moana does boast a fun adventure movie about a girl and a demigod teaming up to save the girl’s people from famine and destruction of their land. There are battles, heartfelt Life of Pi-esque moments on a boat, and an uplifting coming of age story. The finale is even really unique. Then again, other Disney movies have had great plots, too.
So those are staples of a Disney movie. But what makes it iconic? A classic? The originality?
Going into Moana, I had heard all sorts of things. Most were positive, and along the lines of, Moana is the most unique Disney princess movie I’ve seen. I’ve never seen the “earnest girl teams up with a scoundrel with a heart of gold” before.
Moana looks so different from the other Disney princesses!
Well, I guess unique is a strong word.
I really don’t want to rag on Moana. There are a lot of good things about her. My problem is when I see other reviews with titles like, “Moana is the anti-princess,” or “Moana is not like anything I’ve ever seen!” Disney cannot physically make the anti-princess. They have created our idea of what a princess is, and furthermore, they aren’t going to radically change what a princess is. Moana isn’t even really a princess-princess, but because they need to market her as a princess, they have a character in the movie call her a princess, to remind us that she is one, so go buy her Halloween costume already. To make an anti-princess would mean to not make a female character a princess, and heaven forbid we not have an animated leading lady that isn’t a princess.
So Moana isn’t an anti-princess. She fits into the Disney Princess spunk like a glove. She’s got the big eyes, flawless hair, and perfect physique (that’s right, nice try Disney, but I’m not going to congratulate you just for making her waist bigger than her neck. I don’t applaud fish for swimming.) She has an earnest heart, a sense of adventure, and courage.
Even though I don’t think Moana’s personality is drastically different from other princesses, she is undeniably likable. She’s more flawed than just being clumsy like Anna from Frozen, and she’s more three-dimensional than Elsa. She has a relationship with her family (both parents live! yeah!) and we get to see her do something no other Disney princess has ever done- actually rule her kingdom and interact with her subjects. That’s right, being in a leadership position actually requires something out of you. Who knew?
Moana is voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who deserves all the credit for making Moana likable and complex. Moana’s coming of age story is made powerful by Cravalho’s emotions, and I hope she does a lot more work in the future.
Now we can’t have a movie without a macho dude character to bring in the boy audience. We get that macho dude in Maui, a shapeshifting demigod, voiced by the closest thing we have to a real demigod on earth- Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Maui, like Moana, isn’t a character we haven’t seen before, but Johnson brings warmth to the role, and while I hope one day I can see a movie with the roles reversed, Johnson and Cravalho do a great job with their chemistry and banter.
Moana is a fun movie. It will scratch a Disney itch. It would even be fair to call it a great movie. But I would hesitate to say it is groundbreaking. It is a step in the right direction though, and I think it has the Frozen-effect. With Frozen (in my humble opinion), so many people fell in love with what the movie was supposed to be, what it stood for, rather than the actual film. I think Moana is much better than Frozen, even though they both stand for the same ideal. I think one day there will be a movie that will achieve what a lot of people are looking for- a thoroughly modern, feminist, game-changing fairy tale. So no, Moana is not a revolution, but it is a revelation.
One last note- I went to see this with my sister and a friend. As the movie closed, I looked over and saw that my friend was teary-eyed. She told me it was because Moana was her. No, my friend isn’t a pacific islander, nor does she really have much else in common with Moana, although they both have long, crazy hair. But Moana has that adventurous spirit, that drive, that sense of purpose that my friend has and felt she had never seen on screen in a relatable way. Moana was the Disney Princess she had been waiting for.
So, while Moana is not the Disney Princess I’ve been waiting for, she may be the one you’re waiting for, and that’s awesome. She’s accompanied by a great movie.That is something Disney can pat themselves on the back for.
Okay, okay, that’s enough, Disney. Get back to work. You’re not out of the woods yet.