Moana’s soundtrack is lauded as one of Disney’s absolute greatest, though there have been some people who disagree. Some people think Lin Manuel dropped the ball compared to his previous work.
While I do enjoy most of the songs for this movie (I can watch the “Shiny” sequence over and over again), I do have a few problems. Mainly, for Moana’s main songs, it ends up TELLING (rather than showing) her character.
Let’s look at “How Far I’ll Go”.
I’ve been staring at the edge of the water / long as I can remember / never really knowing why
So far, so good. It’s been established in the previous song that Moana has been attracted to the ocean but we’re not sure why.
I wish I could be the perfect daughter / but I come back to the water / no matter how hard I try
Alright, stop right there. When did the movie establish she wanted to be the ‘perfect daughter’? At least when Mulan lamented on how she couldn’t be the ‘perfect daughter’, we knew WHY: she couldn’t fit into the cultural norm and bring her family honor. Sure, we see Moana get into a scuffle with her Dad, but there was nothing to establish before that she was desperate to make him proud/gain his approval.
She continues to sing about her desire to travel the sea and how she yearns for it. Which…we already knew. They’re nice lyrics, and Auli’i Cravalho sings them wonderfully, but it doesn’t really move the plot forward.
Then she gets to the next verse where she uses the word “island” FOUR. TIMES. That’s not good songwriting. It just sounds repetitive. She talks about how happy and content the islanders are with their role in the island (which was already established in the previous song) and how she wants to settle with her role (again, we already kind of settled that with the preceding song).
I can lead with pride / I can make us strong / I’ll be satisfied if I play along
Hold up. We saw that she is a competent leader, but nowhere did the movie show her leading with PRIDE. When we see her interacting with the villagers, she doesn’t look prideful. She looks rather nervous when she leads. Previous moments made it look like she did NOT really feel satisfied being the chief. And where did the movie say Moana could make her people ‘strong’?
But the voice inside sings a different song / What is wrong with me?
No, Moana, what IS wrong with you? You live in a village where everyone adores you, you have supportive parents, and you’re set for life as a chief, and you’re complaining that something’s wrong with you because you’d rather be a navigator?
Well no matter, because as soon as she said that she’s happy to rush back to the beach, sing about how the ocean calls her, and gets ready to set sail.
So you can see why the lyrics aren’t very strong. Instead of moving the story forward, it either rehashes what we already know, or TELLS us what makes Moana so special.
Which leads to my biggest problem. I don’t see what makes Moana so special.
Like…she literally has no flaws. She was chosen by the ocean to restore the heart of Te Fiti. She’s going to be the chief, no question, and is competent at it. Everyone loves her, and she loves them all. She is physically and athletically strong but still manages to look conventionally attractive. She is able to learn how to properly navigate and sail in almost no time at all. She snaps a demigod out of his funk. She outsmarts several monsters. She saves the day, not needing help. And in the end, she doesn’t have to choose between her role and her passion. The whole movie sets Moana up as someone special and powerful…yet I’m supposed to feel sorry for when there are contrived moments when Maui tells her “you think you’re something you’re not” and cheer for her when she almost immediately realizes “I AM MOANA”.
Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana all had realistic flaws. Jasmine’s impulsive decision to leave the palace puts her in danger. Pocahontas keeping her rendezvous with John Smith a secret, rather than being upfront with her father, caused the death of one of her people and escalated tensions between the Powhatan and the colonialists. Mulan aggressively does not fit her culture’s gender roles (either as a man or as a woman). And Tiana’s drive to get her restaurant wears her down and interferes with her ability to socialize with others. They all have to learn from their mistakes and fix them, or grow and develop as characters, or cause SOME form of change. And ultimately, they all become lovable, sympathetic characters. But Moana is literally perfect. TOO perfect.
I legitimately could not sympathize with Moana after she sang her song. Not only did it remind me waaay too much of “Reflection”, but there was nothing that really warranted her to feel so sorry about herself. Why not make Moana an outcast? Why not have her villagers actively challenge and doubt her future role as chief? Why not have people find her love for the ocean as weird? Why not have Moana be weak (both physically and as a chief) and come back stronger when she returns? That way it would make her bond with her grandmother and Maui more poignant, and her desire to restore the heart more altruistic. But no, she just REALLY loves her people and sailing and can do anything.
Yeah, I’m frustrated. I don’t see Moana as a three-dimensional, compelling character. I see her more as a role model, someone people can admire, but not relate to. I’m disappointed because she was being built up as this great badass character but she’s really not.
But then again, I’m in the minority. I know a lot of people who love Moana, and I can’t fault them for that. But for me, I’m going to stick with Mulan, Pocahontas, Vanellope Von Schweetz, Belle, Jasmine, Tiana, and Honey and Gogo. These are characters I can connect to and relate to; I’ll leave Moana to those that relate and connect to her.
As a commentator pointed out, there actually is an important character flaw of Moana. In Polynesian culture, family comes first, and you’re supposed to honour your elders and carry on your tradition/be obedient. The problem is that, if you’re non Polynesian like me, this is a very important detail that you’re going to miss. The fact that she turns out to be right all along that sailing is part of her island’s culture and tradition also kind of shows that Moana can never really be wrong.
Overall, I would’ve made a few tweaks to this movie so that the audience can actually be informed of Polynesian values and traditions (not just what they wear, eat, and dance), change Maui’s role, and make Moana a more well developed character. But that’s just me. Feel free to think differently.