Favorite Fictional Characters, #346: Grandma Tala
Yesterday we took the boys to see Disney's newest offering, the Polynesian girl-power romp Moana. It's a lush visual experience, rich in sweeping colors and epic scenery. Disney does its best to tread the thin line between cultural sensitivity and cultural appropriation, but it's a nearly impossible task in the contemporary climate. For example, Maui, the hulking demigod, is criticized in some circles as a stereotype of overweight Pacific Islanders (though I thought he was just enormous, not flabby), and too Americanized (though his voice actor, The Rock, is Samoan). Fictional forays into non-white traditions are minefields for creators no matter how well-intentioned.
That the movie encounters critiques for political failings is a bit ironic, given the overt attempt to highlight a female protagonist who is Disney's least princessy princess yet, and one (like Frozen's Elsa) who is not defined in the slightest by romance or the need for a man. Moana is raised to be the chief of her people - interestingly, and perhaps laudably, there is no discussion of her gender in relation to that role (Polynesian cultures have long histories of ruling Queens, from Tahiti to Hawaii). Her relationship with Maui is not a sexualized one, even in inference. There is the standard Disney narrative of a girl wanting to be more than she is, against the strictures of a narrow-minded father; destiny and fate are the real themes here, not dissimilar from Pixar's Brave. But for the grass-skirt Merida, the man she's supposed to marry is an entire tribe. Moana can't do that, at least not in the confining terms presented, and so the film is a prolonged paean to self-discovery and fidelity to our inner compass.
To that point, the most interesting character in the movie isn't Moana's High School Musical boundary-buster or Dwayne Johnson's oafish island Hercules, but rather Tala, Moana's elderly grandmother. In a film determined to fill itself with strong women (even the ocean itself is a no-nonsense feminine entity), Grandma Tala is the strongest. She's trod her own path her entire long life, and the other denizens of Motunui think she's a bit addled. A dotty old broad, she's also wise and honest and brave. Seeing a lot of these same qualities in Moana, she becomes the girl's spiritual guide, the subversive Pied Piper who leads her granddaughter to challenge tribal norms and heed her inner voice. Some of the most powerful scenes take place between these two - again, like Frozen, the key love stories here are not romantic but familial. My favorite scene is Tala wading into her beloved ocean, dancing with the stingrays she adores. She might not be the hero of the piece, but that doesn't mean she's not heroic, or awesome.