After the landmark release of Frozen (2013), and this year’s lauded Zootopia (2016), Disney’s latest revisionist effort does not shy away from the company’s recent political expression as well. Directed by the legends of first Disney Renaissance (Ron Clements and John Musker who directed Aladdin and Little Mermaid), Moana boasts the traditionalist story that is expected from those who helmed the film, with a sense of modern liberal philosophy that is now familiar with the company’s house style. However, the film is not a backward compromise; rather, its restructuring of the traditional formula surprisingly suggests a relatively radical revision not found in the company’s previous entries.
One of the biggest factors that makes the current Disney Revival different from the first Renaissance in 90s is the political awareness. For years Disney has been an easy target for feminist critics–and with good reason too, with their traditionalist, damsel-in-distress portrayal of princesses, with gender roles divided into the classic Mulveyian binary of active male and passive female. Sleeping Beauty (1959) is their most glaring offense in this area, which they did show some effort to revise it in their re-interpretation of the text in Maleficent (2012). It is not to say that 90s Renaissance lacked any sense of revisionist agenda–Mulan (1998) suggests an active, fighting heroine that saves the day at the end with her own wits and might. However, Mulan‘s gender dynamic is a controversial one in the end: the female gains a voice and ability to act through her male facade. Therefore, it follows the much-debated concept of gender-reversal, something that has been criticized to have questionable effectiveness in capturing the idea of gender struggle on screen.
In that sense, from Tangled (2010)’s moderate yet still determined portrayal of the female protagonist to the rejection of spotlighting heteronormal romantic relationship in favour of focusing on familial bond in Frozen, the Disney Revival films seems to delve into the root of the problem: instead of highlighting the female presence within the traditional gender binary, the films attempt to restructure the gender binary altogether. This is most evident in Frozen, where it directly self-critiques some of the Disney traditions under this philosophy.
Moana, coming from that perspective, is an interesting one. It is made by the two who started, led and saw the end of the Disney Renaissance (Little Mermaid to Treasure Planet, both of which Clements and Musker directed). Most of the directors and co-directors in the current Revival era have made their first directoral debut durng this very era, with an exception of Chris Buck, who directed Tarzan (1999) before helming Frozen with Jennifer Lee. In that sense, Moana seems like a throwback (they are also a lot older than the new generation of Disney directors, and even older than John Lasseter)–and it feels like one too, with its general narrative structure closely following the traditional mould. It is within this context Moana rebuilds the traditional Disney gender dynamic with perhaps the company’s most daring agenda yet in mind.
It is not the titular heroine’s portrayal that is interesting; Moana is actually rather simillar to Disney’s now-staple female heroine–an active, independent subject whose actions are gender-free, with a hint of direct self-criticism (“I’m not a princess!” she repeats numerous times in the film). Instead, the film’s true revisionist spotlight goes to Maui’s portrayal.
Maui is the epitome of masculine potrayal. So much so that he is voiced by none other than The Rock himself, whose on-ring and on-screen prsona is closely associated with arrogant–almost comical–masculinity. He obsesses over the concept of traditional heroism, being loved by the people as their saviour, as well as the very tool that makes him a hero. The film’s comic representation of masculinity naturally leads to Maui’s inner insecurities: no Disney male hero, or hero-like character, has been this gender-consciously inscure. He’s a man who is defined by his powers that he himself identifies as gender-originated masculinity, and this obsession to his identity lays foundation of his dual character. This is revealed in a far more glaring light by the film’s juxtaposition with him and Tamatoa during the “Shiny” musical segment: Maui is a man who lost his (ultimately imagined) manhood, while Tamatoa is the one who prides upon his created manhood (his golden shell), and the fight between the two reveals the fruitlessness and the inherently comical nature of the battle of male prides.
His magical fishhook is then the best symbolic example of his insecurities. It makes him do all his feats that he boasts as the male hero, and more importantly, he is notably insecure without it. His identity, at least initially, feeds upon the power that makes him the male hero–which means that his masculine insecurities that come from the lack of such power are that much relevant to his characterization.
It was his insecurity that brought chaos to the world of Moana, and his realization and acknowledgement of that insecurity that brings order back to it. The symbol of his insecurity, the fishhook, is destroyed, then reborn and given back to him by the mother figure of the film; by doing so, the film crudely recognizes the falsehood of male masculinity, and reframes what he thought as his source of male masculinity as a matenal gift–something that originates from a female entity. Considering his insecurities were born from the lack of maternal guidance, this turn of events is appropriately ironic.
If previous Disney Revival films focused on building an interesting, independent, active and (relatively) gender-neutral female heroines, Moana looks to revise the other end of the spectrum. No other Disney Revival film has so thoroughly critiqued and broken down the concept of masculine insecurity and imagined manhood as Moana. Even better is that Moana does not seek to confuse young boys who are being raised in the gender-defined society; instead, the film renders comic these potentially-charged questions (especially with the help of Maui’s tattoos), and naturally lead them to the better alternative. This is where the film’s traditional narrative structure shines. Maui adopts the classic arrogant-then-enlightened hero development, similar to the directors’ Renaissance film Hercules (1997). The film merely adds gender-charged symbols throughout his development, and while some would find it insufficient, it is definitely effective.