Moana (After the Campaign Review)

When I reviewed the marketing of Moana back in November of last year, I focused a lot on the way brand name stars like Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Rock were positioned as big selling points for the audience. That was a heavy focus of Disney’s campaign at the time, along with nods to the story of Moana’s journey to embrace her destiny and save her island.

That storyline, though, forms the crux of the movie. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), is the daughter of the chief of a small Polynesian island. Despite her parents’ insistence that the island is enough for everyone, she yearns to explore the vast sea. When a threat to everyone’s peaceful life emerges she strikes out to enlist the help of the demi-god Maui (The Rock) to help restore balance to nature. The two have to go through various trials and dangers to do so but ultimately find what she’s looking for and it all works out.

While the campaign sold a fun and funny movie about the odd pairing of the inexperienced but headstrong Moana and the cocky Maui, there’s so much more to it than that.

What’s most interesting to me is that at a few different times in the movie, the story actively subverts the usual pattern other movies would follow. Without spoiling too much, it turns out on a number of occasions that Maui needs Moana more than Moana needs Maui. Sure, she relies on him for help a few times, but she’s the one that usually winds up bailing the two of them (along with Heihe the chicken, voiced by Alan Tudyk) out of a situation Maui has gotten them into.

Sure, the general storyline follows the rough outline of The Hero’s Journey and Moana is most definitely setup as “the chosen one.” But even that convention is tweaked slightly in new and interesting ways to make the character and her journey more interesting and original. Right from the outset she embraces her destiny and doesn’t have to be talked into it. She jumps into danger right alongside Maui, with nary a second thought. That’s often despite his wishes, but when she pulls him out of the fire he’s glad she did.

Without spoiling it too much for anyone who hasn’t yet watched it, Moana’s approach to most issues, including the surprise at the ending, reminded me often of Wonder Woman. Like that hero, Moana approaches the climactic confrontation not from a position of wanting to destroy the beast just for the sake of doing so but because she’s filled with love and a sense of responsibility toward her people back home. That allows her to see a solution to the problem that Maui, with his “jump and attack first, ask questions later” approach can’t. That gives the story an emotional depth I wasn’t expecting from the campaign.

One other thing I have to mention: Completely missing from the marketing was any reference to Tamatoa, the giant jewel-encrusted crab voiced by Jemaine Clement. Tamatoa is to this story what Smaug is to the The Hobbit, a greedy collector of treasure that has something the protagonist needs to succeed in his or her quest. It’s a pivotal moment in the story but it’s almost the most original and surreal thing I’ve seen in a mainstream animated feature in some time. It comes off like Clement doing a David Bowie-sounding number that had me as wide-eyed in disbelief at the audacity of what was being done as some of the notable sequences in Baby Driver. The movie is worth seeing just for this scene.

Moana is streaming on Netflix now and is highly recommended.

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