Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd :
CW: erasure, appropriation, white supremacy/racism, capitalism, feminism/gender, trans stories, urine reference
A goddess of life, of verdure, of creation, is sought out by a masculine force of divine power, and for a time, becomes infernal, until she is restored in a moment of regret by the same masculine force. Then, spring returns. Her name is Persephone, kidnapped by Hades at the discretion of Zeus, then later restored (for part of the year) by Zeus again. The pieces, places, people are different. The story is structured in a different way. New elements are introduced in different versions. A woman knows herself, but dominant masculine forces erase it. She remembers herself when they are changed by her restorative powers; a woman knows herself but is unseen until she restores herself. The elements shift slightly, but slivers of truth live within these frameworks.
Yet. Stories like this one, which are so familiar in broad terms or in their buried treasures, are not ours. Moana takes pains to remind the audience of where it comes from. Despite the pop music and the backing of Disney, the film is a folk song, rich with the culture from which the storytellers drew it. Because this story has a source that is both unique and marginalized, there is a barrier there. This story is not ours. As much as it is familiar, as much as parts of it are reflected in our own experiences, as much as it moves us, there are parts of it that can never be ours. If you are not from the islands, the story of Maui might inspire you, but it will never be inherently familiar to you.
And that's okay. If this story moves you, if it changes your life, if it only makes it a little better for a little while, you can honor what it has done for you--if it is not for you, it is not of your culture--by repaying the debt. Disney has a long history of taking from oppressed peoples, from the demonization of voodoo in The Princess and the Frog to the problematic depictions in Pocahontas to the offensive portrayal of the crows in Dumbo, it is a company that has failed again and again to pay their own debts---indeed, in many cases, caused significant damage in their taking--to those from whom they have taken their stories and made their millions. As the years have passed, their track record has improved. In this film, much of the cast, as Smitty points out (and both her reviews are fucking great, by the way), shares the source culture of the legends upon which this is based. There seems to be more they are doing as well, but still, they can do more.
That's the key, really. So often I get asked on these reviews why this film should be what I demand of it. I get asked why I even hold things to these standards, why nothing can ever be perfect. The truth is, nothing ever will be. All of these narratives are incomplete; all of these stories fail, either on the surface or behind the scenes. When, for instance, a person of color makes a film that describes their experiences, even through independent means, there's usually something about the way the film is produced or distributed, perhaps, that feeds back into the system that oppresses them. This is always true. Within the system we oppose, we are never free from its detrimental forces, even as we wield them against it. We will win only in spite of kyriarchy and with deep scars. When a major corporation that has a history--and present day--of appropriation, exploitation, and other harmful practices presents a story of people of color, when Disney takes an ancient legend and crafts it to its own purposes, even the best PR machine and savviest, most sensitive presentation will work against those it is supposedly empowering. A few actors and writers and crew will get paid and survive--and there is more value to that than can be appropriately expressed--but the most money still goes to Disney. Disney hasn't grown that much. Its existence is part of a wider framework of oppression, even if it is finding ways to give back and heal some of the wounds it has inflicted. It will never, so long as it exists within a capitalist economy, completely make up for the damage it has contributed to.
Disney has to do more. For Disney to make the perfect film--which, I think, we can believe it wants to do--it needs to do so much more. They've taken interesting steps, but they are incapable of taking the ultimate steps. Still, even within their self-imposed bounds, there is more they can do. Hire an entire cast and crew from the Pacific. Don't take the profits from the movie; don't donate just a portion. Take all of that and more of their own considerable wealth and fight the pollution destroying the ecosystems of the islands. Go further and further. Use the context of the film to raise more and more awareness, more than they have or will. (Swim beyond their own fucking reefs.) But they won't; they will never make the perfect film.
Perfection, then, rests on us. A film doesn't have to be perfect to evoke a perfect reaction, nor does it have to be ours to inspire change and compassion and recognition in us. We don't get what it is to be a Hawaiian if we are not a Hawaiian. If you never lived here, you don't know what it means to miss New Orleans, but you can feel the injustices of Hurricane Katrina in your bones--and do something about it. If you've never been a queer black man, you won't understand everything Moonlight has to offer, but it can resonate with you on different levels. Te Fiti is not Persephone, but we can all feel renewal when the spring comes again--when the dangerous part of nature subsides. We might not know what it is to fear the might of a volcano or sail from island to island, but we all recognize the might of the natural world and the beauty it can hold. We step back and see the bigger picture, but the fine details escape us if we're not lucky enough to be part of it. If we want to honor what Moana gives us--if it does--then we should honor those sources and learn more about them. Find the films of Hawaii, the Solomon Islands, Polynesia, and other Pacific cultures; support causes that immediately impact them. Celebrate and appreciate without exploiting and appropriating. And when we find ourselves within their narratives, acknowledge what is and isn't ours.
For instance: A girl struggles with who she is and who she is supposed to be. She feels a pull that her society tells her is wrong. She searches and finds guidance in her culture's past where others have not remembered to look, and she is empowered to be herself. A girl struggles with who she is (her gender) and who she is supposed to be (the gender she was erroneously assigned at birth). She feels a pull her society tells her is wrong (I am a woman no matter what you think). She searches (exploring my gender through various means) and finds guidance in her culture's past (other trans women showing me the way) where others have not remembered to look (we remain invisible, denied), and she is empowered to be herself (I began my transition). When we reclaim these stories, we do so as an affirmation. We've so few stories of our own that we must search elsewhere. Moana is not my story; it is not Disney's story. It's a story that belongs to the indigenous people of the Pacific cultures from which these stories are drawn. If it were strictly a Disney story, or if it were a story from my own culture (Persephone--or Cora, really), my recognition would be an act of reclamation and empowerment. Since it is a borrowed story, I cannot and will not call it my own. What succor and inspiration I take from it, I take knowing I now owe a debt. (I adopted New Orleans as my home; I repay my debt every day by working on her behalf. We--trans women--often point to the Two-Spirit people in Native American history as indication of trans identities erased by white supremacy; we owe them a debt that starts with not appropriating the terminology and continues with reminding the white world of their existence and importance. And so on.)
Erasure is at the heart of this story. It's present in how Maui has been lost for 1000 years. It is present in how the culture of Motunui has forgotten its origins as wayfinders. It is present in how no one seems to understand the connection between Te Fiti and Te Ka. At each step, understanding, rediscovering, renewing the past, drawing from lost traditions, restoring the past to the present, is the source of resolution, strength, movement, freedom. It is not an argument for stasis or reversal, but for acknowledgement and understanding. Listen to the song: the stories pass down in an unbroken chain. When that chain is broken, that's when stasis begins. Stories evolve with us, but their truths guide us in that evolution.
Feminine strength is at the heart of this story. Moana is empowered by her grandmother and her mother. Te Ka and Te Fiti are goddesses that Maui is no true match for. The ocean is coded feminine, and, of course, Moana is the daughter of a chief, a leader (as Smitty--and others--points out), a skilled human being. She's not without flaws, but her flaws are not forced by plot or circumstance. She is never a damsel in distress. She is not a princess. Her journey is one of combating erasure (note that what Maui provides her are skills she should always have had--he helps her restore herself). Her journey is not finding herself but accepting herself and learning how to reveal herself. She is allowed to be vulnerable, never judged for it--indeed, her grandmother welcomes her with kindness when she wants to turn back. Compassion is shown as the true strength here. The crab is the dark mirror to Maui, emphasizing his worst qualities--this is called out in the dialogue even. Maui plunges into the underworld without fear; Moana follows in an act of true bravery. Everything Maui does informs how we should view Moana--but masculinity and femininity are not shown to be wholly oppositional. Moana is more than physically capable--this is coded as basically gender neutral. Maui has moments of vulnerability; Moana has moments of confidence. Nothing is completely positive or completely negative.
I should also acknowledge the technical craft of this film. I am not and never will be a fan of computer animation like this. It's incredibly well made, but my heart belongs to silhouette animation and Looney Tunes and stop-motion and all the things I grew up with. Still, Disney has managed to wield this style in service to its main product: wonder. Unlike Harry Potter films, Disney films occasionally take a breath and let it all sink in. More than once, Moana stares at an island or a wave or a wall of clouds. The songs also prove perfect vessels for letting the audience take in what they are seeing (maybe the Harry Potter films should have been animated musicals). The vast scale of Te Fiit, for instance, is repeatedly emphasized instead of masked in favor of cheaper production. Movement is reveled in, but often in a fashion that allows you to fill your eyes with the colorful setting instead of distracting you from it. (I also enjoyed most of the songs--except "Shiny," meh--especially the one Moana sings about feeling the call of the sea.) (Also, that was the Rock actually singing? Who knew?)
It's also worth noting that the sight of a chicken beating his head against a stone is one of the funniest images I've ever seen. (I coulda done without the piss jokes, though.)
What Disney does best, though, is tell stories. They have a formula of sorts, one that has as much to do with the monomyth as anything else. Their nods of awareness to that formula don't really do anything one way or the other for the film, but it does reflect their understanding of the story they've told so many times. It's one I've always been attracted to, no matter what they dress it up as. I grade these films harshly because I know Disney can do more, but I take much from them. So I owe a debt. I hope my words here encouraging others to move beyond Moana in their appreciation of the cultures it draws from starts to repay it. I will seek out the films made in the Pacific and continue to advocate for them. That's part of what we owe. (We need to go beyond our own reefs as well.)