'West Maui Mountains' by Warren Antiola, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Not a great film, but pretty good. Felt in many ways like a quarter-century-on echo of Aladdin, most obviously through the presence of a celebrity-voiced barrel-chested trickster-god who rather effectively swipes the spotlight from the title character. Not a complaint; I saw the movie specifically because a friend linked to the film’s signature musical number, and I said: I want to see this movie. I don’t regret seeing it, though I do wish that its script had taken risks as bravely as its own heroine does.

Moana rises well above mediocrity via satisfyingly clever echoes of dialogue and action while power shifts and settles between the film’s two protagonists: the eponymous and grit-driven hero-princess, and the scenery-chewing demigod Maui. She learns her full potential, ready for adulthood; he learns humility, as well as the joy of playing a support class now and again.

All of which, I dare say, feels fated from the start. We never doubt that the heroes of a Disney movie will succeed in saving the world, but with Moana I note especially how they never seem to pay a price or make a sacrifice of any degree, either. Dead grandmas come back, Star Wars-style, to continue their tutelage; unique relics shattered during boss battles get re-instanced by kindly gods. In a running gag, every time one of the seafaring characters gets tossed overboard, the ocean itself reaches up to plop them right back on deck. Everyone learns something about themselves, and nobody loses anything.

I realize perfectly well how I cluck and complain that a colorful animated movie for children doesn’t contain enough tragedy for my middle-aged tastes. I get it! But, even recognizing the milieu, something about Moana’s mood still didn’t sit well with me.

I see it also in how it treats the ocean as an active character. I understand it as a “living object” sidekick in the same vein as the magic carpet from Aladdin, but this didn’t seem the right format for anthropomorphizing the entire sea, especially in a film that draws on Pacific Island folklore. I can accept humanizing something so non-human as the sea, so long as it keeps its most important intrinsic qualities. To an islander of antiquity, the living sea would be vast if nothing else, right? But Moana only gets as far as “wet”, giving us the water-tentacle from The Abyss cross-bred with a frisky puppy. So tonally off-kilter.

It just seems a little disingenuous, I suppose, for a kids’ movie to introduce themes relating to growing up — death of loved ones, voyages of personal discovery, the unknown world over the horizon — but then render them so completely toothless, exacting no price to pay. Pixar’s lovely Inside Out examined how growth and loss can often seem inextricably bound, even (and perhaps especially) regarding the painful transformation of adolescence. I guess I wanted at least a little bit of that here, even in a movie set in paradise.

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