Disney’s Moana (2016) was a jarringly alienating experience for me in a way I haven’t felt since venturing to the theater to watch John Waters’s brief cameo in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip (although the raucous laughter at my screening of the brutally unfunny Deadpool ranks as a close second). I just had no business being there, to the point where I have no business rating or reviewing the film in any traditional way. I’ve had positive experiences going out of my comfort zone to watch highly-praised Disney productions this year, namely Zootopia and The Jungle Book, but with Moana I was way out of my league. The buffoonish sidekicks, the uncanny valley CGI, the constant indulgences in *cringe* musical theater: Moana was mostly just a reminder that Disney’s princess mode, no matter how highly praised, is just not for me. Brave, Mulan, Frozen, and so on have all alienated me in the same way (with The Little Mermaid being a rare exception to the rule) and not even song & dance numbers from the likes of a pro wrestler (The Rock), a Flight of the Conchords vet (Jemaine Clement), and a Godzilla cameo could turn me around on an experience that was so uncomfortably foreign to every fiber of my being. Moana did feature one isolated gag that spoke directly to me, though, an extended homage to Immortan Joe & the War Boys, just about the last influence I expected to find in a Polynesian Disney Princess action adventure.
The filmmakers behind Moana (an extensive team that has included names as significant as Hamilton‘s king nerd Lin Manuel Miranda & comedic genius Taika Waititi at some point in its production) have acknowledged in interviews that the film’s homage to Mad Max: Fury Road was indeed intentional, so I’m not just grasping at straws for something to enjoy here. The homage is brief, however, and although the film was not nearly as much of an obnoxiously undignified experience as Road Chip, it did remind me of mining the entirety of that work for a pitifully minuscule glimpse at the Pope of Trash. While on their quest to restore order in the world via a pebble-sized MacGuffin, Moana & [The Rock] are at one point pursued by a tribal army of Kakamora, a fiendish crew of mythical spirits who take the physical form of coconut War Boys, complete with their own coconut Immortan Joe. The Kakamora approach Moana’s puny-by-comparison boat in massive warships, attempting to board her ship & rob her of her all-important MacGuffin Pebble. Moana doesn’t directly reference Fury Road with any specific visual cues; it instead tries to mimic the feel & the scale of George Miller’s massive accomplishment in a more general way. The Kakamora appear in ocean mist the way the War Boys appear in the kicked-up dust of desert sands. They tether their ships to their target vessel as a means to both board it and slow it’d progress. Most tellingly, they play themselves into battle with a live music soundtrack of tribal drums. All that’s missing from the scene is a blind little Kakamora threateningly riffing on a coconut guitar.
If history has proven anything it’s that I’ll continue to shell out money for any new theatrical version of Fury Road that achieves distribution: 2D, 3D, (most absurdly) black & white. I doubt I’ll ever stop returning to that well and, alongside its stellar reviews from those more in tune with the merits of the Disney Princess™ brand, just the mere mention of a Fury Road homage was enough to drag me to the theater for a CG cartoon musical I had no business watching in the first place. In some ways it’s tempting to read into how Moana & Fury Road communicate plot-wise. Both films center on a female badass trying to welcome back Nature to a crumbling society by employing a storied male warrior sidekick & the restorative help of water to defeat an evil presence and convert a longtime patriarchy to a matriarchal structure. In both instances, success also hinges on a race to a narrow physical passage that seems impossible to reach in time. These shared sentiments are likely entirely coincidental, though. Borrowing a little of Immortan Joe’s War Boy mayhem for its coconut pirates was simply a means to an end. Besides being a delightful nod to a property you wouldn’t expect to be referenced in this context, it also affords a key action sequence the sense of scale & visual specificity that makes George Miller one of the greatest visual minds of the genre. So much of Moana was Not For Me (which is obviously my fault and not the movie’s), so it was kinda nice in those few fleeting minutes to mentally return to a property that is a continuous source of personal pleasure. Moana was smart to borrow some scale & adrenaline from Fury Road in a scene that desperately needed the excitement (despite the Kakamora never registering as at all significant to the overall plot). Honestly, though, I was just glad to have the film’s more alienating musical theater & CGI sidekick buffoonery broken up by something familiar & genuinely badass that offered me a moment of escape from what was a personally misguided ticket purchase.