Disney should have called this movie The Moanamyth. Rarely has the monomyth—or “The Hero’s Journey,” as it is more popularly known—been so blatantly used as the template for a film. If you are unfamiliar with the monomyth, I encourage you to Google it. It’s kind of a catch-all story form, and you’ll start to notice it in lots of movies, but storytellers usually mask it a bit better than Disney does in Moana.
Maybe it’s the explicitly mythological material presented in Moana that makes the monomyth stand out as much as it does. Future, Pacific islander, chieftess Moana is destined to go on a journey with a few funny friends to defeat a Big Bad and restore order to her world. She enters into the world of demigods and goddesses, learns secret and long-forgotten skills, and then returns to lead her people across a new/old horizon. The fun of the movie is in the particular details of the story—living water, a blinged-out crab, and (another, after Finding Dory) kooky bird-friend among them—and, largely, in the vocal performance of Dwayne Johnston, as the most self-satisfied demigod, Maui, who is responsible for Moana’s people’s predicament. And there are entertaining songs, this time penned partially by It-boy, Hamilton-scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
If you detect a tired note in that preceding paragraph, you’re paying attention. It’s not that Moana isn’t fun. It is. It just isn’t anything else. Walking home after seeing it, I was buoyant, but the movie has faded for me since. I don’t find myself thinking about anything in it the way I spent weeks circling back to aspects of Zootopia (prejudice), Big Hero 6 (healing as a superpower), Frozen (repression and false love), or Brave (mother/daughter relationships), to name a few recent Disney stand-outs from the past four years.
Why is that? It has to do with the strong monomyth structure, I’m sure. I feel like I’ve seen this movie before but with different details, because I have. But I think it’s also because Moana lacks anything other than the are minimum of what the narrative requires. It lacks what one of my favorite film critics, Jett Loe, terms “bits of business.”
“Bits of business” generally aren’t essential to the core story. They are there for the audience, not the characters. They help the story-world feel more fully realized and more entertaining. Entertaining well entails going beyond what’s merely necessary to make your guests feel valued, loved. “Bits of business” make the movie more than a narrative delivery device. They make the movies truly entertaining. Here’s an example drawn from one of Moana directors’ Ron Clements and John Musker’s other films, The Little Mermaid.
Remember the “Les Poisson” scene with Sebastian in the kitchen where he gets chased by Chef Louis? That’s a “bit of business.” It adds nothing to the plot, but it’s a fun scene that rounds out The Little Mermaid’s world. It’s a running gag that pays off at the end of the film when Chef Louis shows up again and Sebastian ges a chance to get the upper claw. There are no bits of business in Moana.
The closest the film comes to a bit of business is a bunch of coconut pirates and that blinged-out crab I mentioned earlier. The pirates are truly superfluous to the story and a delight (I would have loved them to appear in a Chef Louis-like reprise), but the crab—named Tamatoa after a Tahitian king of legend—is essential to the plot. The song he sings though, the hilarious David Bowie-riff “Shiny,” isn’t necessary. It’s just fun. But since there aren’t other bits of business in Moana, the song feels out of step with the rest of the film. For me though, these were the highlights of the movie, because they hinted at a wider world beyond Moana.
And Moana is about getting out into the wider world, a theme underlined by the Pacific island mythological foundation on which the film is based. Our cinemas are awash with European and space-age mythologies. Moana is about the importance of Polynesian stories. It even opens with a Polynesian story being told. Moana made me want to see more Polynesian stories, so I guess it succeeded there. I just wish I felt like Moana had shown me a Polynesian story.
You might also find these reviews of Moana helpful:
Larsen on Film
Reel World Theology