The year is almost over. That’s good, because 2016 was a bit of a crap year, as many would agree. Refugees, elections, decisions, nothing seems to go the right way. However, there’s hope on the horizon. She sails on an outrigger canoe and her name is Moana. Or Vaiana in the European Countries. She’s the heroine we need right now.
By now, I have a lot of faith in The Rock aka. Dwayne Johnson. His movies are usually good and if they’re not good, they’re entertaining. The actor of Samoan descent has a great presence on screen and he seems like a really nice guy in person. So of course, I go see a new movie with him when it’s out.
I was wrong. Dwayne Johnson is not the best part of this movie. I was ready and willing to have a massive man-crush on Maui, the cocky Demi-God, who helps Moana on her way to do some kind of something, if the trailers are to be believed. I was wrong to hope for The Rock. Because he’s good, no doubt about it. He does a wonderful Maui with the right amount of cockiness and heartwarming anguish as well as decency. But it’s not him I was rooting for. Maui is not the character I found myself rooting for in the end. Because my hero of the movie is without a second doubt Moana played by Auli’i Cravalho. Auli’i Cravalho has never been in a movie before and she absolutely nails it. It’s not just the talent and emotion she brings to her part but also her part in and of itself. Her character steals the show as the hero we need right now in our world.
The Simple Plot
Vaiana proves once again that the plot itself can both be simple and have all the depth necessary to make for creative character development and a lot of emotion. Basicaly, it goes like this: In ancient Polynesia, the demigod Maui has stolen the heart of Te Fiti and now decay is coming for the world. To return the world to health, someone must take back the heart, get it past the monster Te kā and that’s that.
Meanwhile, on the character development side, you have Vaiana who feels drawn to the sea, but her tribe hasn’t sailed out beyond the reef right in front of their island in generations. While it’s pretty obvious that she’s the chosen one early on, because her grandmother (Rachel House) tells her so and because the ocean itself helps Vaiana on multiple occasions.
Maui on the other hand knows he’s an awesome demigod with powers and fans and everything – leading to the great musical number «You’re welcome» – but neither Vaiana nor Maui know what it’s like to fail, to be weak and to persist. They’re special snowflakes in their own right, but they’re not perfect. They can make mistakes, even if their intentions were good.
A Measure of Edge
Disney movies usually have an issue with having an Edge. Basically, it’s a weird effect that occurs when tackling more mature subject matter such as death. In the past, characters have died, but the writers of the movie did their best to not actually show or mention the word death. Perished, expired, terminated and so on was okay, as were off-screen deaths, but you never see someone just flat-out die. While this is all fine and dandy, it makes for a weird experience when watching a movie and I for one always found this a bit jarring. It’s a bit like trying to make spicy food without using spices and then claiming that it’s spicy.
Vaiana does not do that. They’re going all out with it. We see both death by accident and by natural causes. Which is nice, because it shows that our kids are not fragile things that need to be protected. They can be shown that life ends and that death is death without having to be traumatized. Because all death is handled with serious gravity, the utmost respect and emotional impact as well as a certain beauty. Doing this, Vaiana reaches emotional impact in a way that movies like Tangled and Frozen never could.
Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Death isn’t the only topic the movie tackles with the seriousness it deserves. There’s also the rich, millennia-old culture of the polynesian islands. While Vaiana isn’t set on any kind of defined island even though it has the name of Mata Nui, the cultures were kind of blended together. It does that blending very well, making a point of not explaining everything. At one point, Maui performs a Haka before battle, which is a traditional warrior’s dance. Today, a Haka is traditionally performed by the players of the New Zealand rugby team called The All Blacks before every game.
However, this is not explained and neither should it be, because if you get into explaining every intricate element of polynesian culture, then you would end up with a documentary on various aspects of polynesian life rather than a coherent movie. Instead, the most famous aspects of the polynesian life are a vital part of the movie, but they’re treated the way any culture is treated, as something that is just a natural part of life. It doesn’t need explanation. It doesn’t need special treatment but can do with a bit of respectful irreverence. Culture is something we have, we live and we share. We share aspects of it with other cultures and other people and we’re better for it. We learn and we practise. And that’s great.
So we only see the effects of culture, such as why a manta ray is a special symbol for the grandmother and how this icon translates to the story at hand. The deeper meaning, although undoubtedly there, is never expanded upon or even mentioned. It’s just clear that this symbol is a symbol very dear to the grandmother and that Vaiana understands it.
Vaiana is a movie you should see. It’s the movie we all need to be inspired a bit. It’s got beautiful visuals that even impress a CGI curmudgeon like me and stellar performances not just by Dwayne The Rock Johnson but mostly Auli’i Cravalho. Not to follow our dreams or anything, but to just keep at it. Even if it gets hard. Go see it.