Tuesday, July 04, 2017

moana: a hero in need of a towel

I’m a believer in the close read—in getting to know a book, play or film so intimately that you can consider the meaning of every detail—but I’m not much of a practitioner. It’s true what librarians’ bumper stickers say: So many books, so little time. But if you want to study every nuance of a thing, I highly recommend hanging out with a toddler. The catch is that the thing in question will probably be the Minions movie or a picture book about construction vehicles (ask me about the difference between a front-end loader and an excavator).

It’s a little embarrassing how excited I was when Moana appeared on Netflix one day recently. Finally, a movie we could both get into watching 17,000 times! I hadn’t seen it, but I listen to the soundtrack a lot, and I sneaked in a couple of songs between “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the Tidal playlist I created for Dash. Toddler criteria for liking something seems to be “Do I already like it?” When the first song came on, he said “Mommy car!” (where we’ve listened to it) and immediately paid attention. Throw in some water and boats, and he’s in heaven.

The movie is Disney’s take on Polynesian mythology—I feel like there are things to be said about cultural appropriation, except Disney is already kind of shorthand for cultural appropriation. That’s what they do, and it’s not totally okay because corporations etc., but at least they’re big enough and smart enough to do it well? To make a mash-up of public-domain ancient legends that is beautiful, clever and funny, a mix of 3-D animation and 2-D drawings inspired by Polynesian art.

Agua-loving kid with a worry-wart parent. I wonder why I like this movie....
In the opening scenes, Moana is a toddler, and it was a big deal to see a little brown kid up there—not as an ensemble member or sidekick, but as the hero. Of a big movie from a big studio. If I feel that way, I can only imagine what it means, intuitively, to my little brown kid. I want him to feel represented so he can be the hero of his own story, but I also want him to know that other people are the heroes of theirs, i.e. empathy. So for the opposite reason, I am glad Moana is a girl.

Dash’s favorite character seems to be the ocean itself, which plays little tricks and taps people on the shoulder, which I believe is Dash’s way of reminding me that I can engineer all the representation I want, but he’s going to see the world through his own lens. He demands “Moana song.” When she washes up on the beach, he suggests: “towel.” He worries about her sick grandma and asks “Better?” He really, really likes the cave full of ancient boats. Because it’s a fucking cave full of ancient boats and a fucking waterfall.

"Tunnel!" according to Dash
A while back, a former coworker of mine—I’ll call him Hal—tweeted People keep telling me I look like Maui in Moana but cuter, lol. Hal is a sweet guy and talented photographer with a huge ego, the type who frequently talks about “humbling himself.” When I worked with him, he was in the early stages of recovery and prone to long, heartfelt monologues about his journey; he’s immersed himself in at least a couple of new religions in the time I’ve known him. He sometimes talked about how his parents were superstar activists who never had time for their own kid, so he got involved in gangs and got in trouble a lot when he was younger. Every time he met someone new, he pointed out the contradictions of his own success: “People are so surprised to meet this former gang member with multiple college degrees.” I might have done a little eye-rolling off to the side. When he returned from rehab, the staff advised him to just focus on himself and not hide behind his camera for a while. It was hard, but he did it.

The way to a man's heart: through his ego. (#NotAllMen, of course.)
Maui is a demigod whose human parents rejected him. The gods see something special in him and raise him as their own. They give him a magic fish hook that allows him to shape-shift. But he never stops trying to impress humans, pulling up islands for them, lassoing the sun, ultimately stealing the heart of Te Fiti, the mother goddess, causing her to (spoiler alert) turn into a sort of volcanic banshee. I like that too, the idea that all of us are capable of good and evil, and we need heart and a little help to be our verdant-island selves as opposed to our screaming-fire-monster selves. Maui does a lot of boasting and posturing, but he discovers his human side thanks to Moana. Hopefully Hal will get there too.