WARNING: This post contains spoilers.
I watched Disney’s latest animated feature film Moana a couple of weekends ago and I wanted to take a little bit of time to talk about it.
I typically discuss how animated films and television shows handle cultural representations on this blog. In this case, I don’t know enough about Polynesian indigenous culture to be able to give an informed assessment on whether Moana did a good or poor job of portraying the culture.
As a general critique, I thought it was pleasant but very middle of the road in terms of its story and execution. It didn’t seem like a terribly ambitious film at all to me outside of its construction of its Polynesian setting. Its story beats were as by-the-numbers as any of the other princess films Ron Clements and John Musker directed during the Disney Renaissance. I literally started laughing when Moana started singing her “I want” song because it was so predictable. I was moved by the moments where Moana interacted with her grandmother but those are undercut by the randomness of her death, which comes off more as a contrivance to get the plot moving. The film gave no allusion or actual cause of her death besides her being old I suppose. But even then, I wasn’t given any indication that the grandmother was frail or sick or anything like that. I don’t think the portrayal of the ocean as an ally to Moana vs. just water was consistent or properly explained when it’s an ally and when it’s just neutral.
It’s disappointing that Moana wasn’t a better film. I thought this year has been a pretty strong year for mainstream animated features (I really liked Zootopia, Finding Dory, and Kubo and the Two Strings) and I don’t think Moana lived up to that quality.
With all of that said, there is one thing I liked very much about Moana.
I liked the way the film handled its villain, the lava demon Te Ka.
The portrayals of villains in Disney has almost always followed a simple “good guy/bad guy” dichotomy ever since Big Bad Pete was created as Mickey Mouse’s adversary. Since those early days, Disney has crafted truly frightening and deplorable villains, whether it’s the Witch from Snow White, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, or Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The films always end with the villains getting their retribution in the form of a horrific and often violent demise.
Hell, even a much dopier villain like Captain Hook is implied to have eventually been eaten up by an alligator.
Moana’s approach to Te Ka was different however. She realized that Te Ka herself was actually the island goddess Te Fiti and that she needed to be healed rather than vanquished. As I started to realize the revelation about Te Ka, I realized her screeching and the flames all over her body were actually expressions of her pain. Moana saved the day by empathizing with Te Ka and healing her pain. This defies the one-dimensional “bad guy” narrative that most media, Disney in particular, perpetuates and the narrative that the only way to stop a “bad guy” is through some punitive measure, like killing it. In contrast, I was a little unsettled rewatching Rapunzel’s cute little comic relief chameleon buddy trip Mother Gothel out the window of the tower to her death in Tangled. Not even Rapunzel was trying to do that to her. Moana offered a more humanizing portrayal of everyone and I think that is valuable.
My favorite Miyazaki film is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and in an earlier blog post I praised the film for its portrayal of Nausicaa herself. Nausicaa was portrayed as a “strong female character” from a surface level analysis and a deeper analysis. On the surface, she was an independent, autonomous female character with personality that can handle herself in a fight. At the same time, she wasn’t just a strong character simply by giving her personality traits that are stereotypically defined as masculine. At Nausicaa’s core was a deep sense of empathy for every other life-form (including the very monstrous looking Ohm) and it informed every action she took in the film. Empathy and caring is stereotypically defined as feminine and it was literally more powerful than her hand-to-hand combat skills or Queen Kushana’s whole army and the Pejite army combined. Nausicaa’s conception as a character defies both stereotypical masculine and feminine binaries and it’s not used as a cheap justification for male-gaze voyeurism either (hello, Kill La Kill).
Everything I described about Nausicaa can be applied to Moana, down to a tee.
I think Moana’s (and Nausicaa’s) empathy towards her adversary are especially important now more than ever. This year has been a very divisive and tumultuous one and it unfortunately shows no signs of getting less so by next year. It has become much easier and more encouraged for people to paint other people who are different than them, whether physically different or philosophically different, as an aberrant other not worth even engaging with. I have gone through this personally and I’ve observed it collectively this year. I’m not trying to sound pollyannish, but I really hope now more than ever begin to see the humanity in each other and learn to understand another person’s pain and adversity. It’s important if we ever want to truly keep this godforsaken rock from descending further into a writhing cesspool of lava and flames.