Friday 2 December 2016

Island life: "Moana"

Moana is Disney repurposing Pacific island culture, in much the same way Pocahontas seized upon Native American lore, Mulan upon ancient Chinese legend, The Hunchback of Notre Dame upon Victor Hugo, The Aristocats on jazz. Why, then, hasn't there been more of an outcry, as there has been in the past? For one thing, the corporation has become far more adroit about selling these reappropriations to the wider world. Anyone looking for evidence of this development might point to the staggering success of 2013's Frozen, which surely repackaged Hans Christian Andersen, yet was claimed in turn as a notable work of 21st century feminism, and is even now being readied for sequels - and, I'm guessing, being converted into not just a Broadway extravaganza (Frozen on ice!), but a live-action prospect along the lines of the company's recent The Jungle Book and upcoming Beauty and the Beast. You might also point to the short that precedes Moana in cinemas, Leo Matsuda's Inner Workings, which takes a premise so close to that of last year's Pixar smash Inside Out as to feel actionable - office drone finds his motions and emotions governed by the independent actions of his brain, heart and stomach - and still succeeds in doing something reasonably fresh and funny with it over its six minutes.

At the same time, Disney have clearly learnt to tread far more softly and sensitively around this type of material, recruiting local voice and design talent, and setting out their storyworlds in shades that vary from flattering to outright glowing. More so than any other major studio, the Mouse House has figured out a strategy for keeping its erstwhile default mode of patrician conservatism at bay: by throwing open its doors and windows and inviting some fresh air in. Female directors. Non-princessy leads. Characters of colour. In the case of Moana, the studio's most outdoorsy and sundappled venture in some while, the title character - voiced by the Hawaiian-born Auli'i Cravalho, and introduced as an adorable, wide-roaming toddler - is the inquisitive brown daughter of a chieftain overseeing a rocky outcrop. Told as a young girl that "as long as we stay on our island, we'll be fine", she responds (in song, inevitably) with a crystallising "I wanna see"; instructed, definitively, as a teenager that "no-one goes beyond the reef", she immediately pops into the nearest coracle and sets off toward the horizon, singing a song of empowerment as she goes.

The new Disney songbook has been - and will likely continue to be - a liability for viewers of my vintage. Set against the terpsichorean variety of the original Jungle Book - or, more recently, Aladdin and The Lion King - there can be something a touch numbing about being obliged to endure one pseudo-inspirational post-Cowell belter after another. Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" and Katy Perry's "Roar" are perfectly workable battle anthems, designed to rally the spirits of any teenager who's just been turned down for show choir, but hearing their derivatives eight, nine or ten times in a row in the context of a ninety-minute feature can prove more wearying than stirring. Moana, to its credit, succeeds in mixing up the playlist rather better than Frozen did before it: I couldn't say whether it's the input of Broadway's man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the vocal range here extends beyond the usual, agonisingly sustained top notes to encompass such performers as Jemaine Clement, recalling his Flight of the Conchords work as a jewel-encrusted crustacean, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, springing an unlikely yet very creditable Michael Bublé impression upon us in the course of his intro number "You're Welcome".

Johnson's here as Maui, a demigod Moana encounters (read: has to put up with) on her travels, and the relationship feels like a real selling point: the little girl paired with the big guy whose ever-shifting tattoos do a lot of his talking, feminine pluck and intuition matched against male vanity and pride. He's got the physical might that would have made him a protagonist back in Disney's Hercules days, but she's got the ocean on her side, the wind in her sails, and this shipbound back-and-forth propels this particular quest narrative far further than most. Granted, Moana's a throwback in many respects - the directors are John Musker and Ron Clements, veterans of the company's 90s golden age - and, as several critics have pointed out, it now plays like a glimmer from another timeline: one where island communities look out beyond their own shores, and strong female leaders can be hailed as the people's choice. Yet what a glimmer, quelle mirage: it's funny how pop culture can be a consolation and, just perhaps, a wayfinder in times of extreme turbulence. Not even Disney's marketing people could have predicted where we were going to be at the end of 2016, but with this latest, the studio has given us an early and unexpectedly welcome Christmas present: a heroine capable of overcoming defeatism, and healing all rifts and wounds besides.

Moana opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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