Moana is finally available on home video (well, I bought it on Amazon, but you get the idea), and so the Rouner Family set it up last Saturday for our family movie day. Literally every critic I know and trust talked about this movie as the greatest piece of animation since My Neighbor Totorro, so I had very high expectations, and I deeply regretted not getting around to seeing it in theaters.
My take? Amazing film. Not as good as Lilo and Stitch, but then again nothing is. The Rock needs to do way more musical theater. Kind of a generic hero’s journey, but it was refreshing to see a female protagonist with absolutely no romantic subplot and whose community actually loves and respects her authority.
But there’s this couple of scenes near the end that started itching at the back of my mind like I’d seen them before. It’s during the final battle with Te Ka, and Maui is diving back and forth through the air slicing bits of the titan off. Then, all of the sudden, Moana realizes that the volcano god is actually a corrupted Te Fiti, and implores the god to come to her so she can restore her heart (basically the whole movie is an elaborate Kingdom Hearts level). Te Ka bends down, her face dwarfing the girl, and that’s when I remembered this bit from God of War III.
After I saw it, I realized the whole film is basically God of War without all the toxic masculinity tropes. Full disclosure: I love the God of War franchise, misogyny and all. Kratos is pretty much the embodiment of the problematic hero, and in his defense that is kind of the point. He’s Edith Hamilton’s Mythology with a Michael Moorcock murderous man-child as its protagonist. It’s also just a glorious piece of game-making, and I’m really looking forward to the new Norse entry into the series even if I’m convinced that Kratos should have been retired for a new, unrelated player character.
Moana is the story of one girl’s quest against the gods, same as Kratos. However, she turns his classic story of revenge and murder on its head. Kratos is sent on his journey after the death of his wife and child, but Moana goes on hers preemptively. She’s on a mission of salvation against a possible tragedy, not vengeance.
There is a very video game-esque progression to the film. Like your typical player-character, Moana slowly develops skills to use. Even her encounter with Tamatoa sort of feels like those bullshit levels where the game strips you of all your acquired loot and/or abilities and makes you play a different way.
Moana, unlike Kratos, is dedicated to peace with her mini-bosses even when she is forced into combat with them. In the one instance where she engages in actual combat, against the Kakamora, all she does is carve a path with a non-lethal weapon and flees immediately as soon as she re-acquires the heart. It’s like a properly-played Thief level.
A big part of the second God of War game is confronting demigods, people like the hero Theseus. Kratos, of course, kills them all because that’s what tormented male antiheroes do. Moana, too, confronts a demigod, Maui, who, like a video game, immediately puts her in peril and conflict.
And yet, her battle with him is ultimately one of feelings and empathy. The rest of the movie is like a quick-time or dialogue-tree event where she whittles down his hit points until he gives in and becomes a better person. (Side note: I just realized that Luke Skywalker does this to Han Solo over the course of Episode IV, and now I love Star Wars even more.)
It’s the final battle, though, that really sells the concept. Maui’s traditional fight scene against Te Ka is just magic, maybe Disney's best one-on-one battle since Phillip v. Maleficent. Yet, it’s ultimately proven to be completely pointless until Maui sacrifices his beloved hook — rather clearly a stand-in for Kratos’ Blades of Chaos, as most god-killing weapons in visual media are these days — and uncovers the spiral that reveals the true nature of Te Ka.
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Moana asks the ocean to part and let the corrupted god come to her, and she does, in wrath and fire. It looks exactly like the build-up to the Kratos/Minotaur fight, now that I think about it. If Moana was a video game, you would be itching to hit the attack button as the giant, roaring, and very pissed-off obstacle was rocketing towards you.
But she does nothing. She doesn’t give in and fight. She restores. I swear when she gave the heart to Te Fiti I heard the Ni no Kuni victory jingle in the back of my head.
Movies and games are different mediums, I get that. One is passive, the other interactive, and interactive media generally use violence as a way of acting on a created space, because using other methods is really, really hard (though you have GOT to check out Rhianna Pratchett’s new game and its mechanic). Kratos is Kratos in part because gaming has a hard time being anything other than a murderfest due to the imitations of the medium.
But Moana does mirror his basic journey, only in a way more positive way. Killing is replaced with understanding. Boss fights are not against one-dimensional bullet-sponges, but against our fear of reaching out to those who have been hurt. There’s a reason God of War ends on down notes, and Moana ends on positivity. Both are great, but we might be better people if we wondered more about which approach ultimately is better.