Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Why "Moana" is One of the Most Timely Movies of 2016

Scene from Moana
*NOTE: Spoilers for Moana

It is hard to undermine the magic of Disney and their ability to open each new movie big. The studio known for releasing quality entertainment has made almost every one of their films a guaranteed smash, especially their animated princess movies. Moana is their latest and features beautiful animation, great music, and one of their most compelling protagonists in years. While the film is enjoyable on a surface level, it's interesting to consider how the film relates to the moment of its release. It may not seem like it, but Moana is one of the most timely films of 2016 with plenty to say on xenophobia, cultural tradition, and learning to overcome prejudice. The film may be based off of an old folk tale, but it couldn't have come out at a more appropriate time. It isn't an allegory about the presidential election, but it may as well be about the modern American political climate. 

The story follows Moana as she grows up on the Polynesian island of Motonui. It is here that is first exposed to the tale of Te Fiti at a young age. Te Fiti was a goddess who made the land paradise, rewarding travelers with its beauty and plentiful rations. The 2016 film opens not with a story of peace and love, but of corruption. The demigod Maui is seen infiltrating the island of which Te Fiti inhabits only to steal her heart, represented as a bright green stone. From that day forward, Te Fiti has disappeared and the surrounding islands have become cancerous, losing everything that made it plentiful. It may not seem that way on Motonui at the start of the episode as an elder tells a room of crying children, but it will be by the time that Moana becomes old enough to have any influence.

The expository song "Where You Are" introduces viewers to the modern Motonui. Within the opening lines, it's already clear that the island is a safe place: "Moana it's time you knew/The village of Motonui/Is all you need." The subsequent lyrics are quick to point out how happy everyone is on the island as they joke and weave baskets. As the song progresses to describe how coconuts provide sustenance, the message of tradition becomes clearer. While it sounds like a song about telling Moana to be faithful to her heritage, it becomes a bit disconcerting. Afte describing the joys found on Motonui, there is almost a warning planted into the joy: "The island gives us what we need/And no one leaves." Despite continual belief that they're looking to the future, there is concern about leaving their comfort zone.

It makes sense. Prior to the rising conflict, Motonui had a healthy existence. Fishermen were able to collect fish, coconuts provided food, and everyone was nice to each other. When the story develops, everything is starting to disappear. The island is turning into a grey husk and the fish are gone. The cancerous of other islands is starting to impact their homeland. Moana is forbidden from travelling to sea, in part because of her father Chief Tui Waialiki's worry that she will die on the choppy waves. Despite this, Moana wants to travel into the great unknown because she believes that it is where she'll find the answer to her conflict. Everyone knows that there might be a way to save the island, but nobody wants to risk their life for fear of the danger.

While her island is full of fear, Moana was raised differently. As a child, she briefly came into contact with Te Fiti's heart, which Maui had thrown into the sea. It controls the water, which befriends her and allows her to walk along the bed. There is also her Grandmother Gramma Tala, who is considered a crazy lady who likes to dance with the water. She is introduced by the shore, dancing with the waves and encouraging her granddaughter to do the same. She becomes a spiritual figure in Moana's life, turning into a literal spirit as she passes away. She guides Moana on her journey, providing encouragement where necessary. As she sings longingly in "How Far I'll Go," she wants to know what lies ahead. It calls her.

To apply to a modern context, Motonui could be seen as North America, specifically the United States. Over the past year, the 2016 presidential election has lead to violent attacks of racism, misogyny, and wealth divides. There's even a certain population who blames it on two groups: Mexicans and "Terrorist" Muslims. These are usually white males who fear that America is becoming corrupt. The desire to "Make America Great Again" rings like a call to fall back on traditional values. It is what makes them happy, and the fear of change lingers in their hostility. The U.S. may not be an "island" necessarily, but the barrier gaps between "tradition" and "fear of change" are strong enough to be their own walls to travel against. For a more literal comparison, Motonui is the U.S. and the ocean is Mexico. The area in between is the border, which many are afraid to cross because of the danger it may entail due to being raised with the belief that the world outside of home is scary.

One reason that Moana is so quick to act is because she has seen Te Fiti's heart. She comes into possession of the green stone, which automatically connects her with the sea. As she travels, she learns to control her raft and the ocean cooperates. There are several times where Moana is tossed overboard only to be hoisted back up by a tubular current. As long as she has Te Fiti's heart, she will be safe. As she finds the demigod Maui, she turns to him for advice. After all, he was the one whom mythology blamed for the theft. When he is discovered, he is quick to brag about his accomplishments. In "You're Welcome," he goes on about how he created "the sun, the tides, the sky." He is a man with power who isn't quick to admit his faults, even if he's got one crutch: his all-powerful stick is lost to the sea, specifically stuck on a big crab named Tamatoa, whose size makes him imposing. It is during his mission to retrieve it that he reluctantly accepts help from Moana for the first time. As a result, they are successful.

While the theme here could be read as cooperation in a broad sense, it could also mean that those different from each other could work together to make a difference. Considering that Maui is stubborn and believes he's infallible, the blows he faces as his stick cracks and loses power become his struggle with reality. Man cannot succeed alone. Likewise, Moana turns to him to learn how to steer her raft. On a deeper level, it's a study on how men and women can work together to improve each other's lives. Applying that to an international comparison, it would be like the U.S. learning to work with Mexico and Muslims to make the world a more hospitable, peaceful place. It is in bragging about self-reliance that the hostility kicks in, believing that one is superior to the other.

As Moana and Maui approach Te Fiti's home, they run into Te Ka: a volcanic monster who threatens anyone who tries to cross into the main island. With his shape shifting capabilities, Maui tries to destroy Te Ka, who ends up being a force too strong. Moana is luckier and discovers an alternate route that gets her in. As she heads to the mainland, she discovers that Te Fiti's gone. The island is also a grey husk full of misery and death. After some contemplation, Moana realizes something: Te Ka is actually Te Fiti, and without her heart she cannot be her pure self.

It is here that the green stone begins to represent Te Fiti's identity, which was stolen from her by Maui. As Moana realizes this, she walks across a parted ocean while singing "Know Who You Are." As she slowly walks, she sings: "They have stolen the heart from inside you/But this does not define you." Te Ka's exterior is intimidating and to approach her, even for peaceful reasons, seems problematic. Yet when Moana finally gives her back her identity, she turns into the beautiful island she once was: green and full of life. It lifts the cancer that has impacted the surrounding islands for a thousand years. Everything is at peace. Maui even apologizes, realizing that he's to blame for a lot of the misery. He still is allowed to be powerful, but he learns to use his powers humbly.

Te Fiti's heart is similar to the cultural identity of Muslims and Mexicans. Because a "superior" voice stole how the U.S. perceives them, they become the villains who are assaulted for simply looking different. They are considered grotesque and, in one presidential candidate's words, they're bringing crime to the country. Because too many people are afraid to cross the border (in Moana, it is the ocean) to understand that what they fear is only that way because of misunderstandings. If one was to spend time with people who weren't traditionally in their personal circle of family and friends, then maybe the world would seem less scary. These cultures need to have their heart and identity returned to them so that they are not seen as villains. They're merely humans trying to live life.

This may sound like a ridiculous proclamation, but consider that one of the film's composers was Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. It is a musical based around the sentiment "Immigrants, we get the job done." It is a story of trying to find humanity and strength in a diverse culture. While Moana may not be as socially obvious, it does have a few similar notes in this respect. It is important to be nice to one another. While it is a Disney movie and also features an empowering protagonist in Moana, the film may end up holding weight as the years pass by for the subtext that it speaks of 2016 and of culture in general. It's an optimistic view of the future, and hopefully one that can still be achieved.

There is one song that almost bookends the film: "We Know the Way." In both instances, it's not sung by any of the on screen cast. Miranda and Opetaia Foa'i lead the vocals. In the first half, it is seen as a flashback. Following "Where You Are," a song that says "This tradition is our mission," the song seems nostalgic. Miranda sings: "We set a course to find/A brand new island everywhere we row/We keep our island in our mind/And when it’s time to find home/We know the way." There's a sense of adventure lost to the modern Motonui, and they tell the tale mostly to remind themselves of how they got there. In the second half, the song becomes a call to action. Moana leads her community to explore the world. Even if they leave home, their identity isn't going to change. They will still be themselves. They will just be more culturally aware of the world around them. 

It's a message that we all should hear sometimes, and it's encouraging to hear it from a major studio with songs that are too infectious to ignore. 

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