While watching Moana, I felt there was a problem, but the film is the very definition of entertaining. It draws you in, takes you on a journey through a whole new world, and leaves you with a smile on your face. In other words, it leaves you no time to think while your watching, but once the lights come up, it cannot stop the brain from doing its job.
So there’s a problem with Moana. I’m not sure what, but I’m going to try to figure it out.
Moana is made up of two parts. There’s the setup, then there’s Moana’s hero’s journey. I have the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier between the two that separates them, like the barrier reef that separates Moana’s island from the larger world. Perhaps the film’s problem is simply a lack of unity between these two parts. Let’s see.
- Setup. The situation is this: the islanders have used too many resources. Fish have disappeared; coconuts are rotting.
- Solution: fish beyond the barrier or leave the island for a new one
- Problem: the King says no. His reason is simply personal: a personal tragedy makes him stand firm
- Solution: get rid of the King. Replace the absolute (but benevolent, of course) monarchy with some kind of democracy. That is, revolution is the logical solution to the problem depicted in the story’s setup.
But for some reason the story goes in an entirely different direction: it turns into a single hero’s journey. In the discussion after the film at my screening, the two directors and screenwriter specifically referred to the hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell. Like so many Hollywood creators nowadays, they know the hero’s journey template backwards and forwards. And they wanted this story to follow that template even though the logic of the story as they set it up did not lend itself to this type of story.
So what did they do to get it going in the direction they wanted it to go? Well, the film doesn’t actually begin by depicting the situation. It begins with a myth, the story of a Hercules/Prometheus type figure, Maui, and he is blamed for the “darkness” falling on the land, the reason why the coconuts are rotting and the fish have vanished. What did he do? He stole the heart from a goddess. Why? Who knows?
What this does is shift the blame for the ecological catastrophe the islanders face to a mythical demigod and therefore the solution to the problem is also placed in the realm of magical thinking.
The solution to a real world problem is shifted into the realm of fantasy. This division in the film’s structure is actually quite common in Hollywood films. But this film makes the division even more blatant than it usually is.
5. Why is Moana chosen by the Ocean? Because she saves the baby turtle. She shows empathy for other creatures and therefore passes the Ocean’s test to become the Chosen One. Such a low bar test , however, implies that the other islanders are all unworthy because they all lack basic empathy. They just don’t care about other living beings, and this sort of fits the situation: they’ve used up resources, killed off all the fish. But the film does not have the courage to depict them as lacking empathy. Once again, the natural causes of their problem are bypassed and the demigod Maui is blamed. Before we meet him, we expect him to be a badass evil guy. He turns out not to be evil, but it’s never explained why he stole the heart of the Goddess other than getting carried away. Something like: he did it because he could. In any case, blaming him lets the islanders of the hook. But it also produces a film that lacks unity.
6. Perhaps the greatest problem with the film, however, is that it is formulaic. I’ve already said that the filmmakers referred to Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. But other screenplays gurus seem to be in control of their minds, too. Every time Moana saved a turtle or the chicken, it made me think: “How many copies of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder does the screenwriter own? The topper may have been this, said by the screenwriter during the post-screening discussion: “The audience has expectations for these types of films that they want fulfilled, but in a new, surprising way.” “Expectations” = formulas.
This film never had a chance to be as good and original as it could have been because the filmmakers felt they needed to take the story down the well-trodden road of the hero’s journey, and it lacks unity because they could not or would not risk offending people by showing the islanders themselves as the cause of their environmental problem. Given that our own, real world faces a problem similar to the islanders of Moana, is this really the type of story we need?
Application of the formulas: B+
Clear Thinking: F