Hei Hei: Hero, Gentleman, Idiot

In the days since seeing Disney’s latest masterpiece Moana I’ve become obsessed with one thing.

This. Idiot. Chicken.

Let me be quite clear here. This chicken is an idiot. An idiot of such staggering idiocy that he may actually go the full 360 and be a genius. It’s 2016. Anything’s possible.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this guy, but it’s worth stating a few serious points because while he’s the comedic star of the movie, he does underline a couple of important points it’s trying to make.

1. Moana’s really genuinely lovely. When she finds out Hei Hei has accidentally stowed away on her boat, she doesn’t panic and she doesn’t get angry. It’d be understandable if she did; Hei Hei is in no way prepared for life on the ocean, screams endlessly when he realises where he is, and repeatedly swallows things, falls into the sea, and generally gets in the way. He’s a pain in the arse, in other words, but Moana always keeps her calm and keeps him safe. It’s genuinely touching. He’s an idiot, but he’s her idiot and she takes care of him no matter what.

2. Hei Hei has a moment of heroism. Early in the film, we see Hei Hei eating a rock. It’s a genius gag and one that’s quite brilliantly animated for maximum comedic effect. He struggles with food throughout, in fact, for example, being unable to know where to peck to pick up seeds. So when he picks up the Heart of Te Fiti in the finale, we expect another complication for Moana. Surely Hei Hei’s going to swallow it or kick it off the boat and into the ocean? It’s not his fault. He’s just an idiot. But he doesn’t. Instead, he keeps it in his mouth and passes it to Moana. Why? Because somewhere in that daft old brain of his, he understood something: the goodness of Moana and why this journey is important to her. He’s an idiot, but he’s her idiot and he’ll take care of her no matter what.

Maybe Hei Hei didn’t accidentally get on the boat at all then. Maybe it was intentional all along, his daft way of protecting his friend, even if it’ll baffle and terrify him to do so. Reading too much into it? Maybe. But Moana is all about identity and how our true selves lie within us. Hei Hei, like Moana, just needed a journey to discover it.

Deep.  

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Essay: The BFG (Steven Spielberg, 2016)

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For a director renowned for the wonders he puts on screen, Steven Spielberg’s greatest talent lies in what he doesn’t show us. Whether it’s the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park, Spielberg delights in teasing his audience – not showing, or at least making us wait for, the spectacular, the wondrous, the evil, or the terrifying. It’s why the so-called ‘Spielberg Face’ has become such a well-known visual trope, and why his films, regardless of subject matter and tone, find a mass audience time and time again. We love anticipating the amazing.

This sense of absence isn’t just expressed aesthetically; it’s a deep-rooted part of the director’s thematic concerns too. Spielberg characters are rarely complete wholes. They’re all bereft: looking for something, longing for something, needing something in order to be complete. Part of the joy of a Spielberg film is following them on that journey as they (and we) seek their missing part, a quest they often have to take alone or by conquering the resistance of those around them. The nerdy Jewish boy who grew up a bullied outsider in largely Gentile neighbourhoods has spent his adult life reliving and restructuring that sense of alienation.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, of course, expresses this sense of longing and loneliness in its purest form, and it’s fitting that Spielberg has re-teamed with that film’s writer, the late, great Melissa Mathison, for this take on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG, another two-hander about alienation and otherness. You wouldn’t think it from the effortless confidence shown here, but it’s been more than 30 years since the pair last worked together (and nearly 20 since Mathison’s last screenplay – for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Dalai Lama biopic Kundun) and the passing years have helped create a film even more mellow and melancholic than their 1982 masterpiece.

As the sadly mixed reviews have noted, The BFG is not an eventful film. It’s a slow, patient picture that takes its time and enjoys the opportunity to breathe. Nor is it a particularly rambunctious film, in the way we’ve come to expect from a Dahl adaptation. The author’s warmth often radiated through a mischievous grin, especially in the likes of ‘The Twits’, ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. ‘The BFG’ has always been a gentler offering, but even the darkness he did include (such as The BFG’s discussions with Sophie about the taste of human beings) is mostly blunted or removed entirely by Spielberg and Mathison. Critics are correct when they say the film misses this sense of threat – even the mean giants don’t seem particularly fearsome – but that’s not the story Spielberg is looking to tell.

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“The secret whisperings of the world…”

Something seemed to shift in Spielberg’s approach during the making of Lincoln. The listlessness seen in parts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn disappeared, and the next phase in his film-making career seemed to snap into focus. Long-gestating sci-fi blockbuster Robopocalypse slipped off the slate and was replaced by talk of dramas such as Bridge of Spies, Montezuma, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (The BFG, of course, also joined those films). Spielberg has always been fascinated by character, dialogue, and the little grace notes that make those things come alive, but Lincolnpushed them to the forefront more than ever, and ushered in a new approach to tone and pacing.

Confident, stately, relaxed, Lincoln found its sister film in last year’s Bridge of Spies, which delighted in its slow-burn pace and the studied, deliberate turn of Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, and it again influences The BFG, in which the excellent Rylance exudes a similar silent nobility. This is very much a post-Lincoln Spielberg blockbuster, a film more concerned with words than explosions, eloquence than excitement. It’s arguably the first time Spielberg has seemed truly at ease at the helm of populist entertainment since 2002’s Minority Report (which he identified as “a gourmet popcorn movie”, suggesting he saw it, like The BFG, as no mere slice of summer escapism), and, though time will tell, that’s enabled him to craft a charming fantasy that can rival even E.T..

His ability to couch the fantastical effects and state of the art motion capture in a small story about a child gives Spielberg the confidence he’s perhaps lacked on similar films in recent years. With The BFG, he delights in turning Sophie into a typically Spielbergian child hero. She’s sprightly, inventive, heroic, and noble – played by Ruby Barnhill with a delightful spark and quiet vulnerability that’s not been heralded enough. Outraged by The BFG’s treatment at the hands of the other giants, she tries to inspire him to fight back. She concocts plans, demands rather than asks, and takes well-earned delight in describing herself as “an untrustworthy child”. True to the rebellious heart of Dahl’s book and their own work in depicting the necessity of childhood battles against adult conformity, Spielberg and Mathison have crafted a world where such descriptions are to be worn as badges of honour.

In some ways, Sophie is a stronger hero than her closest analogue Elliott, but she’s similarly lost. Wandering through the halls of her silent orphanage at the height of the Witching Hour, she casts a lonely figure – lost and so utterly anonymous that she can sneak through by without being spotted. The BFG’s entry into this world isn’t just an exciting and wondrous event (though the way Spielberg captures the giant’s snatching of the girl in a long held take is simple, dazzling, and beautifully nightmarish); it’s an utterly transformative one. Like E.T.’s arrival in Elliott’s world, The BFG offers Sophie a lifeline, an opportunity for more than just magic and mystery, but for companionship and camaraderie as well. Sophie essentially finds her soul mate.

Spielberg takes great joy in reflecting this visually. Released from the shackles of serious drama, he plays with imagery with an abandon we’ve not seen for a number of years. A standout moment finds The BFG and Sophie hiding on the streets of London by disguising themselves as trees, while in another The BFG’s dream orbs mimic Sophie’s excited jumping by bouncing up and down in their jars. Sophie describes herself as an insomniac who can’t fall asleep long enough to dream, but as the film progresses, it’s as if her inner life and imagination are so firmly awakened by her friendship with The BFG that she comes to have more of a connection with the dreams he catches than he himself does.

Moments such as these abound and they’re often played out in silence, or with minimal dialogue. Cutting back the chat, Spielberg lets his camerawork, John Williams’ playful score, Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg’s organic, tangible production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s radiant cinematography do the talking. One particularly impressive sequence comes when The BFG guides Sophie through his home, the camera lapping up each wonderful detail with every bit of the quiet grace we saw in Lincoln, while another comes during the Buckingham Palace sequences, where both our heroes are – perhaps for the first time – given luxurious feasts to devour for breakfast. Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cut between The BFG and Sophie’s delighted faces in a scene that’s both humourous and heartening.

It’s a final seal on their friendship, a visual lock of a bond built not on words, but commonality and compassion. It should be little surprise then that it’s expressed not through narrative thrust but the secret whisperings of cinema: sound and visuals.

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“I catch dreams…”

Of course, Spielberg’s the serial storyteller, a man who as a child would summon scary stories based on the trees outside his window and cracks in his bedroom window. He couldn’t make a film that forgoes storytelling altogether, and indeed he hasn’t. While The BFG may take a relaxed approach to telling its story, it makes significant statements about the art of storytelling itself, and stands as one of Spielberg’s most eloquent films about the topic (he’s touched on it in parts of Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, while the whole of Catch Me If You Can focuses on fiction and fabrication). Dahl wrote ‘The BFG’ as a bedtime story for his grand-daughter Sophie (even writing her into it as the main character), and Spielberg expands that idea by turning The BFG into one of his most eloquent and engaging storytellers. (1)

A catcher, creator, and deliverer of dreams though he may be, Spielberg’s BFG cuts a sad and lonely figure. He exists in solitude, far away from humanity and is bullied by his brother giants. Yet he quietly yearns for ‘human beans’ and Spielberg again lets us know with subtle clues. His home is littered with artefacts from the human world – a broken plane wing, old telephone boxes, wrecked ships – and though he feels he can’t come into contact with humans for fear they’d chop him up and experiment, he clearly takes great delight in connecting with them through his pendulous ears, which allow him to hear “all the secret whisperings of the world”. He is both a part of and entirely separate from the world he admires, grasping towards it through the fragments of adventures past.

His role as a dreamweaver and storyteller gives him the opportunity to silently venture into the human world each night, experiencing new adventures and concocting new stories. Though Spielberg shows us fewer of The BFG’s dreams than Dahl did in the book, the one we do see captures the spirit of storytelling beautifully. We find a young boy whose father receives a telephone call from the President. But the President doesn’t want to speak to the man; he needs the boy, who’s the only person in the world who can help him out of his predicament. The dream is short, played out in shadow on the boy’s bedroom wall, and leaves the child with a small, satisfied smile on his face. Like the film as a whole and like Sophie’s moments of delight with her oversized friend, it’s a fleeting incident that will live on somewhere on the edge of memory and emotion.

This, the film suggests, is what stories deliver, but they can cut deep as well as soothe wounds. One Spielberg/Mathison addition to Dahl’s text is the story of a boy who The BFG snatched years before taking Sophie. The pair enjoyed their time together, but it ended tragically when the child was eaten by lead nasty giant The Flushlumpeater (Jermaine Clement on delightfully villainous form). Though not macabre in the way Dahl was, it’s a surprisingly dark addition, and one that paints The BFG’s entire character in a new light. His desire to catch dreams and tell stories comes off not just as a charming frippery, but an absolute necessity. He does it to both remember and forget the story of the boy, to both recover from it and redeem himself for it. If indeed he can be redeemed.

The issue of redemption looms large over The BFG, with Spielberg and Mathison turning the struggle for forgiveness into the source of the ultimate nightmare. Spielberg depicts Dahl’s ultimate bad dream (a Trogglehumper) as a fearsome red orb that buzzes through Dream Country like an angry hornet. But this dream contains not monsters or demons, but a simple message: “Look at what you has done. And there be no forgiveness.” For the stubbornly optimistic Spielberg, who found light even in the darkness of the Holocaust, it’s notable that the ultimate nightmare isn’t some monstrous external force, but the absence of something from within – forgiveness, redemption, happiness, the ability to change and move on. Stories are dreams, Spielberg suggests, and in those dreams, anything can happen. But nightmares… nightmares are a lack of story, a place where transformation is impossible, and forgiveness can never arrive. Lack, loneliness, longing for something that is desperately needed but will always remain just out of reach. It’s a very Spielbergian kind of horror.

The only cure for such emptiness, the film suggests, is to spread the joy of storytelling, and The BFG’s role in the movie is not just to deliver dreams, but to turn others into dream-makers and storytellers. When Sophie hides in the alcove where the little boy slept, she sees drawings detailing his and the giant’s time together. They embarked on numerous adventures and there’s even the suggestion that it was the boy who named his friend the Big Friendly Giant, a monicker the giant seems delighted to accept. Again, the concept of storytelling as a way to control memory, ease the pain of the things we’ve lost in the past, while simultaneously remembering them to shape our future, emerges. By continuing to use the name, The BFG reminds himself of his lost friend and pays tribute to him at the same time.

Sophie becomes a storyteller too, turning the Big Friendly Giant into the more manageable BFG, and helping him concoct the nightmare that will form a critical part of their plan to defeat the mean giants. Having conceived of the idea, then formed the story, Sophie subsequently becomes the teller, delivering the nightmare to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. In this moment, Spielberg does something unexpected and rather brilliant by not showing how the Queen responds to the dream (beyond a few off-screen upset cries). Instead, his camera stays focused on Sophie as she delightedly watches the Royal experience the story she’s created. Thus Sophie’s journey from consumer to creator is complete. Her joy in seeing the dream play out, and knowledge of the positive effects it will bring, underlines how potent such stories can be, and why the film cares so passionately about them.

They are one of the few dependable things that can complete us and fill up the emptiness.

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“Times’ll be hard, times’ll be soft. But she’ll remember the good deeds…“

And yet, it’s to absence that Spielberg returns as he and Mathison draw the story to a close. Two scenes stand out in the film’s finale, and both, fittingly for a film of moments rather than set pieces, are small grace notes.

The first comes as Sophie and The BFG are about to put their plan to beat the mean giants into action. They sit on the side of a mountain looking out across Giant Country and their sleeping foes. Having caught a dream earlier in the film, Sophie asks The BFG what it contains. He tells her that it’s her life – she grows up, finds love, finds fulfilment, and has kids of her own whose dreams she helps come true. However, he tells her, she can’t live that life in Giant Country. Just as Elliott needs to let E.T. go to mature, Sophie needs to wake up from her dream, rub her eyes, and join the real world again.

So in a dramatic divergence from the book, our heroes part. Whereas for Dahl, the BFG finished the story in England, living in a gigantic castle with Sophie next door in a small cottage, Spielberg puts Sophie in the care of Mary, the Queen’s maid, and suggests the beginnings of a family between her, Mary, and Rafe Spall’s Mr Tibbs. The BFG, meanwhile, remains in Giant Country. The mean giants have gone and much of the land is now taken up by fields filled with fruit and vegetables, but he’s still alone. It’s a surprising move – sentimental Spielberg providing a sadder ending than the mischievous, often dark Dahl – but it once again underlines Spielberg’s focus on longing and loneliness and what we can do to prevent them.

In the film’s final shots, Sophie leans out of the window of her new home after waking up from a dream in which she saw The BFG again, and quietly wishes her friend a good morning. Spielberg cuts to Giant Country, where The BFG’s huge ears twitch to pick up the sounds as he writes a book detailing his and Sophie’s adventures – the dream-maker literally becoming a storyteller. He smiles a smile that captures the film in one beautiful image – wistful, melancholic, but still undoubtedly happy. Like a promise made at a graveside, it’s the smile of a man who’s lost something but is perhaps happy to have had something to lose, the smile of a man who will look back on his time with Sophie with joy and fondness, even though the lack of contact with her aches. It’s a smile that captures Spielberg’s entire career, from David Mann’s alienation on those dusty roads in Duel to James Donovan’s persecution as he defends Abel, and would even act as the perfect fullstop for it.

Indeed, endings seem to weigh heavy on the film. Perhaps for Spielberg, former Movie Brat now turned one of cinema’s elder statesmen, and Mathison, who was ill while writing and shooting the film, The BFG, dreams, and stories are not just fantastical tales to help us escape the real world, but passages through to it (2), maybe even passages through to a form of immortality (3). Dreams remix past memories in creative ways, and stories do the same. The stories we tell keep our memories and emotions alive – bringing vivid reality to our fears, our joys, our hopes, and our longings. They’re the best way to keep the past strong in our minds, and the bonds between us firm – even when the physical distance is too great to be bridged. As long as we keep dreaming, keep telling stories and by doing those things, keep memory vital, then loneliness and longing somehow seem less painful.

It’s a beautiful idea. I hope it’s true.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Whether Quint regaling Brody and Hooper with the tale of the USS Indianapolis, Jim in Empire of the Sun basing his vision of Basie off a character in a comic book, or John Hammond looking to give audiences “something real, something they can touch” in Jurassic Park, storytellers have often appeared in Spielberg films. The theme has moved into overdrive recently though. Joey acted as a bridge between disparate narratives in War Horse, Tintin’s very medium drew attention to its artificiality, Lincoln would repeatedly offer stories to help prove his points, and even Donovan became a storyteller in Bridge of Spies, offering the truth of Abel’s humanity in the face of paranoid scaremongering. The BFG continues the prominence of storytelling and storytellers in Spielberg’s recent fare, and it’ll be interesting to see where Ready Player One, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and Indiana Jones 5 take the concept.

(2) “I don’t want audiences to escape from reality,” Spielberg once said. “I want them to escape with reality.”

(3) “Dreams are so quick,” Sophie says after witnessing the boy’s short dream. “Yeah, on the outside, but long on the inside,” replies The BFG.

Moana Audio Review

I love podcasts as they help build a nice sense of community among people with shared interests. I’ve considered doing a podcast myself, but I’m not at ease with my ability to speak at all and that’s always stopped me.

However, I’ve decided to challenge my shyness a little of late. That process began by successfully meeting Twitter friends at the Moana screening last weekend, and continues with this audio review of the film.

It’s not the best quality, and I apologise for the uhming and ahing and the tinny sound of my voice. But, well, here it is. I hope you enjoy.

The Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea: Moana, Disney Princesses, and the Journey to Identity

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This essay contains spoilers throughout. Do not read until you’ve seen the film.

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” arrogant Demigod Maui tells teenage adventurer Moana in Disney’s latest animated masterpiece. “You’re a Princess!” It’s a neat little line that parodies Disney Princess heritage without mocking it too derisively, but there’s much more than mere humour going on with this line. While Moana may protest at Maui’s definition, she is, by sheer force of the Disney marketing machine at least, a Princess, and as such you’ll likely hear critics rhapsodise over how different she is from her predecessors when they come to write their reviews of this film. There’s certainly truth in that, but though the external shell may be that of a rough and ready warrior, Moana is, heart and soul, a very traditional Disney Princess. And as I’ll explore in this essay, that’s a very good thing.

An Innocent Warrior
Let’s deal with that shell first of all, because at its core, Moana is about the multi-faceted nature of identity: the diversity of the human race as a whole, the changing roles we, as individuals, play in our cultures, and the parts we play in order to do that. Moana is, absolutely, a character of agency and physical strength. She defeats creepy coconut guys (the adorably nasty mini-pirates, the Kakamora), outwits a giant crab (the superficial and delightfully self-indulgent Tamatao), and escapes a humongous lava monster (the beautifully animated Te Ka). She doesn’t need a prince to come and save her and is never shy about attempting a physically intimidating task, be that scaling a steep cliff or swinging onto the Kakamora ship to rescue her idiotic chicken friend Hei Hei. Moana is Disney-Princess-as-action hero, and it’s wonderful that a generation of young women have another ass-kicking Mulan-style heroine to look up to.

But just as there was more to Mulan than dressing as a guy and joining the army, so too is there more to Moana. The title of this section refers the second song we hear in the film. ‘An Innocent Warrior’ is played during a sequence where toddler Moana ventures to the beach and encounters a baby turtle that’s trying to make its way across the sand, beyond the birds hoping to gobble it up, and towards the safety of the sea. Compassionate enough to understand the animal’s struggles, Moana leaves the ocean that had piqued her interest enough to bring her down to the beach in the first place and rips a large leaf off the branch of a tree. Using it to shield the turtle from the birds, she ushers her new friend down to the water and bids it farewell as it swims off. An innocent warrior from the very start, Moana here displays the courage and strength of a fighter and the faith, pure compassion, and maybe even naivety of an innocent. In other words, she’s defined as much by her emotional strength as her physical strength.

Moana‘s adventurous story allows directors Ron Clements and John Musker to draw this out in more detail. Moana is a fighter, and a very determined and capable one at that, but she’s not able to do everything. She fails in her initial attempts to go beyond the reef, injuring herself in the process; she makes a potentially fatal mistake when closing on her goal, much to the chargin of Maui; and she can’t even muster the necessary strength to remove a Kakamora arrow from her boat’s mast. Maui, meanwhile, plucks it out like an apple from a tree. (1) Perhaps her most significant failure is in her first meeting with Maui, when she allows the visual and lyrical fun of ‘You’re Welcome’ to blind her to the demigod’s true purpose: stealing her boat so he can escape the island he’s marooned on. Only some quick thinking saves her from being marooned herself.

Time and again, the film shows our hero as a work in progress, a young woman as capable of naivety and impetuousness as great feats of heroics. This is key to the film’s story and the character’s development. Moana’s strength isn’t innate; she has to develop it and battling a harsh and unforgiving ocean (and the even more harsh and unforgiving beasties within it) never comes easily. Mistakes are made and, as I’ll return to later, the film explicitly positions this as a positive in ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)’, a rousing duet between Moana and her grandmother Gramma Tala in which the virtues of emotional intelligence and learning from weakness are extolled. (2) Indeed, her ability to learn is shown to be one of Moana’s most significant skills, whether it’s in the ingenuity of her rescue of the turtle, her escape from the cave that Maui traps her in, or the way she solves the problems laid out by her people when she’s training under her father to become Chief. She watches, she analyses, she learns, and she masters the skills needs, ultimately mastering her most prized skill: Wayfinding.

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Who needs a new song?
While the Wayfinding and warrior nature of Moana is unique to the film, the concept of failing, learning, trying again, and ultimately succeeding runs through all Disney Princess films, even as far back as Cinderella. The motif kicked into a new gear with the Renaissance, where characters were built on their sense of failure – failure to fit in, failure to be understood, failure to meet society’s required standards. This failure is why the ‘I Want Song’ has become such a staple of the Princess film’s make up. These are not just pretty little ditties about wish fulfilment and magic; they’re insights into our heroes’ hopes, desires, and needs, they’re how they process their failures and set their sights on their successes. Ariel feels she can’t fit in in Atlantica, but knows she could in the human world; Belle feels she’ll never be understood or satisfied in her quiet provincial town, so seeks adventure; Rapunzel feels she’ll let down Mother Gothel if she ventures outside, but knows she must anyway. Princesses start off as failures and seek the courage to become successes. While we shouldn’t diminish the physical strength Princesses can show, nor should we suggest it’s the only strength they can show.

In Moana, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda exacerbates our hero’s sense of failure by basing a song around the world she wants to escape. ‘Where You Are’ owes a debt of gratitude to The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Under the Sea’ in the sense that it focuses on a character (Sebastian the Crab in Mermaid, Moana’s father, Chief Tui, here) strong arming – with the best of intentions – our hero into staying put. He tells Moana of her duty to the island, reminding her that her place in the natural order of things is on Motunui and nowhere else. “The island gives us what we need,” Moana is told, before recognising with a certain sadness that this means “no-one leaves.” She matures during the course of the song, and by the end of it (unlike ‘Under the Sea’) it’s had its desired effect. “So here I’ll stay,” present day Moana sings. “My home, my people/Beside me/And when I think of tomorrow…” “There we are…” say the villagers, completing her sentence.

And indeed there they are. Moana settles, becoming the chief-in-training her father expects her to be and that her people need her to be. She’s aware of the responsibility she holds, and willing to accept it, but the desire to change her life remains: she can’t quite shake off the voice within her that tells her she needs to move on. It’s the emotional intelligence and inner strength that all the Princesses have. She knows there’s something wrong and she needs to do something about it, and her challenge through the film is to achieve that something.

This struggle is brilliantly brought to life through Miranda’s association of Moana with the ocean and the natural world. In the I Want Song ‘How Far I’ll Go’, she sings of being drawn to the “line where the sky meets the sea” and likens her motivation for exploring to “the wind in my sail on the sea”.  By having her describe herself like this, Miranda allows Moana to appreciate her core difference to her family and community. Both she and her people value the land, but while they’re happy to stay where they are and live off the land, Moana knows that life isn’t just about surviving and being given “all we need”, but about flourishing, giving back to the natural world, being a part of it, and forging togetherness through the connections the natural world affords.

It’s a concept learned by Clements and Musker on their research trips to the Oceania region. Recounting their experiences in the book ‘The Art of Moana’, the directors describe meetings with island natives where they were told how the ocean isn’t viewed as a great divider of the region’s islands, but as a connector, something that brings all the small and disparate locations together. So Moana’s strength, and her solution to her failure to feel at peace with her community, is to connect not just with her own emotions, but those of all of Oceania, and forge a new identity for her people, one built on a changing relationship with the world. This idea of shifting identities is a theme Disney has returned to time and time again of late and therefore one that merits further investigation.

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Just an ordinary demi-guy!
From The Princess and the Frog onwards, Disney has played with concepts of identity: the roles we play to get along in life, the way elements of our being dictate who we are, and the way our entire sense of self can be deconstructed or transformed. We see this most explicitly in the villains the Modern Era of Disney has produced. From Tangled through to Zootopia, Disney has portrayed evil as a slippery force willing to shift its identity in order to get what it wants or needs. Sometimes this villainy is immediately apparent to everyone but the hero (Tangled‘s Mother Gothel), but mostly it’s played as a twist: Hans turns out to be anything but a handsome prince; kindly mentor Callaghan turns out to be the supervillain Yokai; King Candy reveals himself to be game-hopping Turbo; and shy and retiring Bellwether emerges as the mastermind behind the plan to pit herbivores against carnivores.

Such schemes stand in stark contrast to the heroes, who are no less split in their personalities, but are largely unaware of that fact, or at least unable to do anything about it. Rapunzel, for example, doesn’t know she’s a Princess just that she feels curiously connected to the floating lights in the sky. Ralph is a bad guy who longs to be a good guy so he can live a better life, while Vanellope, like Rapunzel, has been denied an identity that’s rightfully her’s and instead is convinced that she’s a glitch. Judy Hopps is an ambitious young policebunny thwarted by her unsuitably cute identity and Nick Wilde is a good guy who feels he needs to play the part of the bad guy because that’s what everyone expects. And, of course, Elsa is fighting against herself in order to save Anna, while Anna herself plays the part of a swooning Princess because she thinks it’ll get her the love she craves.

Big Hero 6, one of the more overlooked modern Disney films, is arguably the studio’s most fascinating deconstruction of identity, if for no other reason than the long history of identity crises in the superhero genre. In the film, Hiro creates superhero alter egos for he and his friends not to serve a higher good, but to serve his own desire to understand his brother’s death and potentially exact revenge upon whoever was responsible for it. In other words, he’s dangerously close to using identity in the same way modern Disney villains do, and in one of the film’s key sequences, he does just that, changing Baymax’s programming to turn him into a killing machine with his sights set firmly on the newly-exposed Callaghan. The rest of the group tear Hiro and Baymax away just in time, but it’s not until the film’s conclusion that Hiro’s identity crisis fully resolves itself, and the Big Hero 6 become a force for good and not just for their leader’s personal vendettas.

Moana never ventures into places so dark, but the film surpasses even Big Hero 6‘s exploration of identity because almost every character in the film is suffering through some form of identity crisis. Alongside our heroine, the film is comprised of four main characters, though intriguingly none can claim to be a core villain. Instead, we have three threats and an ambiguous anti-hero (Maui, who with his ability to shapeshift is a literal identity crisis as well as an emotional one). The three threats are Te Ka (the closest we get to an overall villain, who I’ll touch on in greater detail a little later), the Kakamora and Tamatoa. Though the latter two aren’t on screen for a particularly long time, they shift identities to serve their own ends, just like any other Disney villain. The Kakamora are described as “cute” by Moana when she first sees them, and indeed they are; until they smear on war paint, brandish weaponry, and wage war on Moana and Maui. Never judge a book by its cover, or a monster by its adorable coconut exterior.

Later we encounter Tamatoa, a gigantic crab with a love for everything gold, glittery, and Bowie-esque. It’s Tamatoa who has the honour of contributing to the long line of excellent Disney villain songs with his number ‘Shiny’, and it’s through this that Miranda zeroes in on identity again. Tamatoa begins by lamenting how he “hasn’t always been this glam,” telling us he was “a drab little crab once”. He brags to Moana – disguised as a crustacean in an attempt to sneak up on her foe – of his joy at being so superficial and delights in telling her how Gramma Tala’s advice that she listen to what’s inside is wrong. It’s all about surface with this guy; he’d rather dazzle on the outside because that’s what drives fish to his lair and gives him the food to live a simple, hassle-free life. (3)

As the song progresses, Tamatoa discovers Maui and his plan to retrieve his lost fish hook, which has now found a home on the crab’s shell. Suddenly, the song shifts focus. No longer just a boast of Tamatoa’s external prowess, ‘Shiny’ becomes an attack on Maui as we learn more about the demigod and his tragic history. As Maui explains in greater detail later in the film, he’s been abandoned by his creators and forced to go through life alone. He creates the sky, sea, and land that he boasted about so much in ‘You’re Welcome’ not simply to prove how brilliant he is, but as a gift to humans who, as Tamatoa points out with glee, have since abandoned him too. He sings:

Send your armies but they’ll never be enough
My shell’s too tough, Maui man

You could try, try, try
But you can’t expect a demigod
To beat a decapod, give it up,
You will die, die, die
Now it’s time for me to take apart
Your aching heart

Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of
These humans who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough

It’s a tremendous feat of songwriting from Miranda and it shines a new light on ‘You’re Welcome’, which like ‘Let It Go’ before it (4), becomes an act of self-deception. Maui’s boasts are a shell, a false identity built to distract people from his true self. (5) He and Tamatoa are essentially the same: monoliths who have shifted from one static identity to the other and got stuck, both emotionally and literally. Before meeting Moana, Maui was no less able to move from his position than Tamatoa is, and while his fish hook may grant him magical powers to shift forms, it’s as much a gift as a curse (6). He’s come to rely on its power as much as Tamatoa has come to rely on his shiny shell, and when the fish hook is lost or broken, Maui loses his sense of identity.

It’s fitting that when we last see these characters (Maui in the film’s final scene, Tamatoa in an amusing post-credit sting) the two are in very different positions. His power (and more importantly, connection to his inner self) restored, Maui is flying high, able once again to shapeshift into an eagle and come and go as he pleases. Tamatoa, meanwhile, is stuck on his back at the bottom of the ocean, his shininess dulled, his chances of getting back on his feet almost non-existent. While Maui has learned from Moana and come to understand the importance of listening to one’s heart and exploring the world around you, Tamatoa hasn’t had the benefit of her emotional intelligence. Only those who listen to Moana’s inner strength can succeed, and that idea sets up the remarkable final act in which our heroine finally confronts Te Ka the lava monster, and achieves her I Want Song goal.

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I am everything I’ve learned and more
Before battle commences, we get something I can’t ever recall seeing in a Disney Princess film before: a second, entirely unique reprise of the I Want Song: an ‘I Nearly Have’ Song, if you will. Having fallen out with Maui, Moana is at her lowest ebb and ready to give up when Gramma Tala returns in spirit form to duet with her grand-daughter on ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors’). It acts as a reassertion of Moana’s determination, but also a reminder of the multitudinous aspects of her identity: her family, her island, the ocean, and the natural world as a whole. Tala begins by telling Moana about failure and how no successes can be achieved without it. “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are,” she tells her grandaughter, asserting that “the things you have learned will guide you.” Again, like all Princesses, Moana is the sum of her failures and the lessons she’s learned from them.

They’re sentiments Moana heeds. She takes over the song in its second half and begins by reaffirming the split elements of her identity, saying she’s “the girl who loves my island… the girl who loves the sea”. Again, she’s speaking of her own wants versus the wants of her father, something she touches on as the song progresses, adding that she remains “the daughter of the village chief” but also insisting that “we are descended from voyagers”. Echoing Tala’s thoughts, she says that she’s “everything I’ve learned and more”, and what she’s learned is that her and her father’s wants are one and the same: a love of her island is a love of the sea, being the village chief’s daughter requires her to be a voyager. While other Princesses have shunned their societies to fulfil their needs,  Moana’s simply changed the rules, flowed like the sea and created a new identity (and new I  Want Song) based on change and the fluxing nature of identity, heritage, and family. Bringing the song to an end, she sings:

“The call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!”

This themes turn into literal truth in the film’s finale as Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti not by destroying Te Ka in the action packed set piece we’ve been set up to expect, but by having maturity, morality, and emotional intelligence enough to understand that Te Ka is Te Fiti. The island lives and after Maui took its heart from her, she turned into a monster whose warped identity comes to infect the entire world. (7)

Again, it’s Miranda’s songwriting that illuminates the moment by having Moana sing another new song (‘Know Who You Are’) that’s based on one we’ve previously heard (‘An Innocent Warrior’). As she parts the sea and confronts Te Ka, she tells the monster that though “they have stolen the heart from inside you” this absence “does not define you/This is not who you are/You know who you are.” Truly Moana has become the innocent warrior, a young woman possessing a warrior’s courage and an innocent’s clarity, intelligence, and faith in goodness. She returns the heart, and Te Ka, in one of the most remarkable moments of animation in this most beautiful of films, becomes Te Fiti once more, a lush green island of life and warmth. The threat over, Moana and Maui stand on Te Fiti’s hills and look out across the ocean to a world given a second chance.

Moana’s saved the day, and saved the world by connecting herself to it, opening herself to the opportunity of it changing her, and finding a way to change it, rather than simply feeding off what it provides. Identities change, they ebb and slow like oceans. Only by understanding that can you understand who you are.

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We know who we are
To round up this piece, I want to return to Princesses as a whole because while Moana has a unique identity of her own, Maui is right with that jokey line about dresses and sidekicks: she is, at her heart, a Princess.

We must always hold Disney to account on their presentation of these characters, both on screen and in merchandising, but we must also commend them when they get it as right as they have with Moana and other recent Princess films. We must also acknowledge that ‘Princess’ is not a dirty word. Moana is a compassionate, intelligent, sensitive, courageous young woman, as the other Princesses are, as many of the films’ audience is. To dismiss Princesses is to dismiss scores of smart, wonderful young women who find something valuable in these films.

Strength isn’t just about physicality. As we’re seeing in society every day, strength is about possessing the emotional intelligence to understand who you are, the flexibility to change with it, and the courage to express it, whether that identity be a result of your culture, race, sexuality, or gender. Moana is a perfect film for our times because that’s what it expresses. That’s what Frozen expressed. And Tangled. And Mulan. And The Little Mermaid… Name a Princess film, and you’ll find that concept shouted out loud and clear. We just seem to struggle to see past the dresses and glitter and magical fantasy of it all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and when thinking about Disney Princesses, I find The Switch Sisters’ comments about finding feminist messages in these films particularly compelling.

Although we women-types have a long way to go in this and all other forms of media (as well as in real life), it’s important to seek out positive feminist messages in the things that girls actually like. Not that all girls like princesses. But when we do, maybe take us seriously. Why do we like them? What do we like about them? Why does dressing up as princesses give girls so much empowerment? Why do girls get so much joy from singing I Want Songs?

In lieu of the magical qualities the earth and sea have in Moana, the emphasis is on us to be each other’s “wind in the sail on the sea” and drive each other to the line on the horizon that Moana pines for. It’s a journey that begins, as Moana’s does, with listening to the call: the call of the world, the call inside ourselves, and more than anything else, the call inside others.

Footnotes

  1. It’ll be interesting to see how Moana is viewed through a feminist lens. When Anna struggled to get to climb a mountain in Frozen, the film attracted criticism for mocking her strength and making her look stupid. Moana offers its hero many more opportunities to display her physical strength and adventuring aptitude, and grants her the opportunity to succeed, but it’s not afraid to show her struggling like Anna and play such moments for laughs. Is Moana an improvement on Frozen in this regard?
  2. Tala sings: “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/
    But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are/The people you love will change you/The things you have learned will guide you”
  3. While the film stops short of associating Tamatoa with Moana’s island, there’s not a huge difference between the isolationist policies of Montenui and Tamatoa. Both use what they’ve been provided with to stay put; living off the land, rather than giving back to it.
  4. Check out three’s fantastic post about ‘Let It Go’ as a song of empowerment for a good rebuttal of my own piece.
  5. Dwayne Johnson continues to be one of the most interesting, and important, male screen presences in modern Hollywood. He has an exceptional eye for picking his roles, understanding his celebrity persona and often subverting it. His last film, Central Intelligence, found him playing a rogue CIA agent with a love for effeminate pop songs and dancing. Maui’s struggles here speak to the concept of masculinity in crisis, struggling with emotional problems but being unable to speak about them. Having been open about his own difficulties with depression, you suspect Johnson related to Maui’s journey through Moana, and I hope it connects with young men in the audience the way Elsa’s difficulties connected with young women.
  6. For more on modern Disney’s depiction of magic, check out my essay ‘No Magic’.
  7. There’s a nice evolution from Frozen here. If Elsa had a frozen heart that threw Arendelle into an eternal winter, Te Fiti has an absent heart that throws the world into a potentially eternal darkness.

Moana: First, Spoiler-Free Thoughts

I had the pleasure of seeing Moana at a special preview at the National Film Theatre in London earlier today, and it was a wonderful experience. Not only was the film great, but there was a (sadly very short as they had prior commitments) Q&A with Ron Clements, John Musker, producer Osnat Shurer, and Moana herself Auli’i Cravalho.I also met lovely new people, which was a big step forwards for me. 

No Disney film passes my eyes without an extended pretentious blog, and Moana will definitely be getting that. But as the film isn’t out yet, I wanted to get some brief, non-spoilery thoughts down first. So here they are.

– The film is terrific. Funny, exciting, and deeply moving, it has something to offer everyone and should do huge business over the Thanksgiving and Christmas period.

– Moana herself is a tremendous character, and you’ll likely hear in reviews how different she is from other Princess characters. She is, in a sense, but as I’ll explain in my longer post, what’s important in Princess characters is their inner strength, and that’s what defines Moana as much as, if not more than, her action heroics.

– That said, it’s a joy to see a Princess character fight creepy coconut dudes, battle giant crabs, and dodge poison tipped blow darts. Moana’s a fighter and I’m excited by the prospect of young girls and women being inspired by that.

– Auli’i Cravalho gives a performance of remarkable confidence. She’s just 15 years old and has never acted before, but carries the film beautifully, sings with incredble passion, and has fantastic comic chemistry with Dwayne Johnson. Much of Moana‘s success is down to her.

– Johnson treads a very fine line with Maui, who comes off as the demigod of mansplaining early in the film. He’s an arrogant character, not a million miles away from Gaston, but can’t be too arrogant as he’s not the villain and develops in some pretty profound ways as the film progresses. It’s a tough balance, but Johnson nails it. Got a great voice too.

– One of the truly great achievements of the film is its visuals. The naturalistic CG animation sparkles, but we also get some wonderful stylised work and some lovely 2D thanks to Eric Goldberg’s animation of Maui’s tattoos. It’s a true feast for the eyes.

– As this is a Ron and John film there are clear links to The Little Mermaid, but there’s also a bit of Hercules, Tangled, Frozen, and Mulan in there too. It makes for a wonderful mixture.

– Hei Hei, an idiotic chicken voiced by Alan Tudyk, is the hero we didn’t know we needed. He wins the biggest laugh (a gag of extended nonsense that gets funnier as it goes on) and has a moment late on that’s surprisingly emotional. 

Moana touches on many things (storytelling, the natural world, coming of age) but perhaps its most important theme is identity: not just knowing who you are in your culture, but knowing how your culture fits into the world. 

– It’s tempting to read everything through a post-Trump lens now, but while Moana certainly wasn’t influenced by his campaign, it feels like a perfect antidote to it. There’s more to life than what you know: get out there and discover what you don’t.

Singin’ and dancin’ in the rain…

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“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Nietzsche. It wasn’t all nihilism, the death of God, and staring into the abyss; dude also liked dancing. And hey, if it’s good enough for Nietzsche, why’s it not good enough for you?!

Curiously metaphysical introduction over (I knew I’d put that Philosophy A Level to good use some day), I’ve fallen under the spell of the cinematic musical yet again. Those who’ve been following this blog from the start will know that I’m rather fond of a good musical, and with La La Land almost in cinemas, I’ve decided to cosy up to the warm embrace of random singing and dancing for the next month or so. Because it’s cold outside, 2016 sucks, and, well, look. Look at La La Land. LOOK AT IT!

Why are musicals so darn good, I hear you ask? Well, I reply, I love expressionist forms of film-making that bring emotion out into literal truth. It’s why animation means so much to me: it’s all about using its non-real potential to heighten the emotions of the characters and turn them into something big and bold and beautiful. The best superhero films do the same, as do the best sci-fi and fantasy films. Emotions can’t always be captured by literal truth; they need the hyper-realism of film to truly hit home.

Musicals take that rule to the next level: they literally make a song and dance about emotions. If the character is sad, they’ll sing a soppy ballad; if the character is happy, they’ll get up off their feet and perform an incredible dance routine. People scoff at such things (pfft, why can no-one else hear this music? How can everyone suddenly know exactly the same dance routine?), but that’s because they’re soulless husks who’ve been damaged by life and probably spend their lives noting continuity errors on IMDB. People sing and dance in musicals because it’s the purest form of expression, and that’s what musicals are about: the various ways we express ourselves.

They’re also, of course, about love, and as I’ve mentioned before, hopeless romance is one of my favourite things. As pathetic as it is to believe, I truly do reckon that there’s someone out there for everyone, that someday you’ll find that person and – metaphorically rather than literally because, well, you’d probably seem a bit weird if you literally did it – they’ll make you sing and dance and you’ll make them do the same. It’s just one of those things I refuse to buckle on – no matter how difficult it sometimes gets – and musicals are a great way to bolster that faith. They’re so damn sincere. They just believe and they make me believe too.

So I’m going full musical. Across the next few weeks, I’m going to indulge in some of my favourites, and a few I’ve never seen before, and probably write a bit of nonsense about them here. Then I’ll go and see La La Land when it’s released in the UK in January and hopefully fall in love with that. Because, well, look at it. How can you not fall in love with it? LOOK AT IT. JUST… LOOOOOOOOK!

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On Romance

This year marked my 32nd year on this curious blue and green rock, and therefore my 32nd year without a girlfriend. It’s cool, I’m going for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. History beckons!

I’ve always been quite a romantic guy, and rather than feel too down about my lack of lurve (frankly I’ve only got myself and my shyness to blame), I try to remind myself of why romance is so good and worth putting myself in positions I’m uncomfortable with to achieve.

It’s for this reason that I’ve spent a lot of this week reading about Date Nite at Disneyland. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Date Nite at Disneyland saw young couples visit the theme park in the evening to do couples stuff (not that kind of couples stuff!). It ran intermittently during the 50s and 60s before being phased out.

The closeness of the couple, the blur in the background… I love this pic!

I was reminded of Date Nite at Disneyland by recent Dapper Day events held at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. These are like Date Nites without the necessity for a date. Folks just visit the parks dressed in vintage style clothing and look darned cool while doing so. There’s a sense of nostalgic romance to it, something that’s only heightened if you’re actually part of a couple.

It’s all really rather lovely and it always brings a smile to my face to see people being so creative, and sharing their creativity with the people they love. Dapper Days are a little like cosplay, and I find cosplay quite romantic too, when done with your partner. Again, it’s lovely when you can share something with your boyfriend or girlfriend, especially something creative.

One day, I’m sure I’ll find someone to be Dapper with or to go on Date Nites with, but until then, I’ll just continue to admire the people who do that already. I love seeing romance in action. And hey, maybe that’s romantic in itself?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Paperman again and sob quietly in the corner.