Friday, November 25, 2016.
Trickster versus Adventurer: Much as he'd like to and try as he might, the Polynesian demi-god hero Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) can’t get away from Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), a very determined young heroine in Disney’s lively work of comic mythmaking, Moana.
I don't recommend seeing them so close together. I think I might have enjoyed Moana more if I wasn't comparing it in my head to Kubo
Kubo is beautifully simple visually, like the Japanese paintings that inspired the designers. (I happen to have a special fondness for Japanese painting. YMMV.) Moana has a lot more going on to look at.
After Kubo, Moana struck me---struck my eye---as a little too busy.
Too much at motion in every scene. Too many details in the background and foreground. Faces were too expressive. Bodies too active.
I had to keep looking away from the screen to let my eyes rest.
Whenever I did, I didn’t always like what I was left listening to. Except for Dwayne Johnson’s and Jemaine Clement’s lines, the dialog is mostly generic and insipid “Follow your heart” arguments and lectures or variations on “Look out!”, “Duck!”, “Take that!”, and “Run for your lives!” The songs---again, except for Johnson’s and Clement’s signature numbers, “You’re Welcome” and “Shiny”, both songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Shiny" along with Mark Mancina.---are at best pretty tunes sung prettily by pretty but undistinguished voices. Still young, Auli'i Cravalho, who voices Moana, will probably grow stronger, but right now she sings like the college ingenue who gets cast as Laurey in Oklahoma while everybody knows it’s the character actress playing Ado Annie who’s going to go on to be a star. It doesn’t help that her solos aren’t expressions of Moana’s particular character only of longings, disappointments, and resentments all teenagers struggle with: “I wish” and “I will” and “If only…”
Taken in as if as a series of paintings and drawings, it’s gorgeous to behold, with a bold, sunshiny color palette and a great travel photographer’s sense of how to frame a landscape, a seascape, a bodyscape, or a face.
And Moana is more broadly comedic. The Rock and Clement are both hoots. So the two movies have different strengths.
One of Moana’s strengths is the energy of its storytelling---that is, once its story get underway. This takes a while. Another weakness. But once Moana sets out on her adventure on the high seas things move along with vigor and verve and high spirits befitting what’s essentially a pirate movie with a female Jim Hawkins and a Long John Silver who’s a shape-shifter and talks to his tattoos instead of a parrot.
Maybe Treasure Island isn’t the most apt comparison, lacking, as it does, magic and monsters. Something out of the Star Wars movies works better. Think of Rey from The Force Awakens paired not with the older, grandfatherly Han but with a younger, more selfish, less trustworthy version of himself from the original movie who bickers with his tattoos instead of Chewbacca. Or, better yet, think of the original pirate adventure with Odysseus having to put up with a strong-willed, feisty, annoyingly innocent and conscientious nymph determinedly keeping him focused on the business of getting back home to Ithaca to resume his life of husbandly and kingly responsibility.
After we watched Kubo, I stayed up late looking at Japanese paintings online. When the last of the credits rolled at the end of Moana, I couldn’t wait to get home to re-read passages from The Odyssey.
I think of it as one of Moana’s strengths that it constantly put me in mind of Homer. And not just Homer.
Moana is a cheerful, enthusiastic, and unabashed exercise in mythmaking, and all myths are to some degree retellings of other myths. Moana incorporates elements from Polynesian myths and legends. Johnson’s character, the trickster hero Maui, is as regular a recurring character in those ancients stories as Hercules, Thor, Krishna, Sinbad, Raven, the Monkey King, and their many counterparts are in the myths and folktales of other cultures, and he has as much in common with any one and all of them as they all have with each other. He’s just as Protean, too, changing character, shape, origin, and history, depending on who’s telling the story. In Moana, he’s more like Hercules and Thor (the Thor from the Eddas not the Thor from the comic books and Avengers movies), a big, blustering, good-humored brawler, more brawn than brain, but still clever and capable of outwitting his antagonists.
His chief antagonist in Moana is Moana.
Her job is to keep him in check and on task, and self-control and singleness of purpose are not among the dominant traits of his personality.
A mysterious blight has poisoned the crops and emptied the fishing grounds of Moana’s home island, where she is the chief’s daughter and in training to take his place as leader of their people---this makes Moana a princess, a title she rejects when Maui teases her with the fact---and Moana, at the urging of her half-mad but wily and wise grandmother, takes it upon herself to save the day.
The blight, which snakes its way across the ocean in the form of a crawling black fog, is the longtime coming fallout from one of Maui's less noble adventures. As punishment, the ocean itself has kept him marooned for a thousand years on an uncharted island without his magic fishhook, a combination of Excalibur, Thor's Hammer, and Dumbledore's wand, with no one for company but his animated tattoos that act as his conscience. Moana's task is to find Maui, help him recover his fishhook, convince him to return what he stolen, and make sure he does it.
Little while back, inspired by the trailer for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, I wrote about how all the best Disney heroines are nerd girls. Princess or not, each one, they’re each intellectually-minded, curious about the nature of things, and, until swept up by their adventure, motivated by their desire to understand how the world works.
Moana isn’t a nerd girl.
She’s an adventurer.
She’s meant to re-embody the spirit of her ancient ancestors, who were explorers before they were forced---as a result of Maui’s misdeed---to haul their ships ashore for good and become unadventurous fisherfolk and gardeners. But as she’s written, Moana isn’t an explorer. She’s not interested in seeing what’s out there. She just wants to be out there and on the move. She dreams of adventure for adventure’s sake. This is a way of saying that she’s unlike all the other Disney heroines in that she’s a heroine by temperament and not by necessity.
Her heroic nature is a given of her status as a princess. She’s braver, tougher, and purer of heart than everyone around her in an assumed way that’s not really demonstrated or tested. She was born a heroine. Never anything else first.
And her character is defined by her role as heroine. Her heroism isn’t an individual expression of her unique personality. Her heroism is her.
Maui is what we expect Moana wishes she could be, an adventurer for adventure’s sake, not bound by rules, unfettered by responsibilities, free of expectations to be good, noble, self-sacrificing, grown-up. But she’s never forced by the script to acknowledge this (or by her animators. In a live-action movie, the actress playing Moana could express this herself with looks and gestures.) so she’s never tempted to be like him. Her temptation is to give up and go home not to keep going.
Instead of Maui being what she’d like to be, she’s what Maui ought to be. Which puts the emphasis on his development as a character. He’s the one who needs to change. She only has to be what she’s already established as being. In the seesawing of their partnership, he gets the better of her simply by outweighing her---I mean figuratively, although his doing so literally as a figure means he dominates the frame whenever they share it) and whenever he’s got her up in the air, she has no way to get down except by jumping off.
In other words, the writers usual way of having Moana get the better of Maui is to get her away him.
This is a problem, having a second lead who thanks to plot contrivances, the writing, and the actor’s performance, is much more interesting than the lead. But it’s not an unusual problem for filmmakers to create for themselves. So there are a number of tried and true solutions.
One is to give the lead something else to do in addition to completing the main adventure, something that for one reason or another the second lead can’t help with. Often, that’s a romance.
There’s no romance in Moana for Moana.
Not that that’s a bad thing. She might be too young for one anyway. I don’t think her age is ever made clear. I took her to be about fourteen but Oliver Mannion has read she’s sixteen, which is still too young for any happily ever aftering. At any rate, this makes her the second Disney princess who’s given no love interest. Elsa from Frozen is the first and it’s arguable whether she’s a heroine. She’s close to being the villain but she’s also the damsel in distress. Her sister Anna is the one who comes to everybody’s rescue and Anna has not one but two suitors. This means Moana is the first Disney heroine whose adventure tale isn’t also a love story. Which would be fine, except that she’s not given another subplot in place of it to take the focus away from Maui and put it on her.
Another solution would have been to add weight to Moana’s end of the seesaw in the form of a sympathetic supporting character. That is: a sidekick. Or sidekicks.
No sidekicks for Moana, unless you count Heihei, the world’s dumbest chicken (clucks provided by Alan Tudyk), but he and Maui have more interaction. Maui’s tattoo mini-me takes Moana’s side in their arguments but he is, after all, a version of Maui and, besides, can only appear on screen with Maui.
As it happens, there are almost no supporting characters in Moana and the few there are aren’t very well-defined. Moana’s father is an official scold. Her mother is one broad beatific smile. Her grandmother is a cliche. And the people of Moana’s island are an unindividuated crowd as dreamily happy with their lot as the lotus-eaters.
Once Moana and Maui put to sea, they encounter only one other character who talks. Maui’s nemesis, Tamatoa, the giant crab-god, voiced by Jemaine Clement, and he’s not a supporting character but an extended cameo of the sort usually given to a major star. Clement isn’t a major star but he does a brilliant job of playing Tamatoa as a star would have played him. I’m not sure which star. It’s either Tim Curry or David Bowie. But it might be both and he’s either doing Bowie by way of Curry or Curry by way of Bowie. Whatever and whomever he’s doing, it’s hilarious, but it’s also a one-scene wonder. Well, one and a half. Make sure you stay through the credits.
The effect of all this is that Moana is more Maui’s movie than Moana’s. Moana isn’t relegated to second lead, let alone sidekick, but she is in the role of responsible child taking care of wayward parent and in that dynamic the parent is always the main focus because everything depends on his shaping up and acting like a responsible adult before it’s too late.
It doesn’t help that Maui’s given all the best lines or that he’s voiced by the Rock who it turns out is a terrific verbal comedian. I don’t know how much of his dialog he made up himself but there’s an improvisational quality to his performance that’s inspired---and I think the inspiration was Robin Williams.
Maui could be a cousin to Aladdin’s Genie, anyway. But his mouth is always going, his mind always working. His personality is a work of verbal construction. He makes himself up as he goes along, and the words come tumbling out of him in jokes, puns, allusions, creative anachronisms, and little bursts of found poetry. Nothing exists to Maui, not even himself, until he describes it, and Johnson delivers every manic line with exuberance, joy, and precision.
There’s nothing hit or miss in his handling of the word play.
The difference between Johnson and Williams is that Williams was brilliant at playing off himself and off the fictional situation of his character. He was always both inside and outside the fourth wall.
Johnson---Maui---could have used someone to talk back to him. He’s an actor who can do comedy, not a comic genius who could also act, and actors need other actors.
This isn’t criticism but description. I’m just trying to tell you what to expect if you’re thinking about going to see it, and I really think you should see it. You don’t need to have the excuse of taking the kids. Or bring a copy of The Odyssey. Although both might help increase your enjoyment.
I can’t remember when or how I was introduced to the story of Odysseus’ journey home from the Trojan War. I’m sure it was when I was very young. (And I would have thought of it as the story of Ulysses’ journey home.) I have a vague recollection of one of my grade school readers including an illustrated retelling of Odysseus and the Cyclops. Whenever and however it was, by the time we had to read the Odyssey in ninth grade I knew all the key adventures---the Cyclops, Circe’s island, the Sirens, the lotus-eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, Penelope and her suitors---but I think I had to keep reminding myself Odysseus was Ulysses’ real name.
So there are probably many members of Moana’s target audience who are going to say to themselves, “Hey, that’s like what happened to Odysseus!”...or Ulysses. Thinking about that makes me smile.
But it makes me smile wider to think that in a few years a lot of ninth graders are going to be reading The Odyssey and saying to themselves or, better yet, to their teachers, “Hey, that’s like what happened to Maui and Moana!”
I meant it. Never mind that they're princesses, the best Disney heroines are nerd girls.
Recent reviews from the Mannionville Daily Gazette:
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Our story so far is are story so far doesn't get very far.
Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Screenplay by Taika Waititi. Pamela Ribon, Ron Clements, and John Musker. Music by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foaʻi, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Featuring the voices of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk. Rated PG. Now in theaters.