Moana, 2016 – ★★★★

What’s really interesting about Moana is how dedicated it is to fitting the title heroine in a traditionally male narrative. That is the brilliance of this movie. She’s not a princess–she’s “the daughter of the chief.” Unlike Mulan, who alters her destiny by dressing as a man, or Tangled/Frozen, which are at times deconstructionist for the sake of being deconstructionist, Moana is treated equal to boys right out of the gate.

On the other hand, Disney knows what it’s doing. The movie doesn’t harp on the fact that Moana is a girl, but it doesn’t ignore it either. Though the quest to feel validated, self-reliant and significant is tried and true for many male heroes, there are some subtle moments–particularly in some of the names Maui calls Moana–that imply it is more impressive and celebratory that Moana succeeds because she is a girl. This acknowledgement of overcoming societal challenges is what people mean by the phrase: “Girl Power.”

Moana is sassy, strong, and beautiful–with long curly hair. She doesn’t learn to fight–Maui teaches her to sail. None of the characters really use violence. The plot focuses more on exploration, magic, and a host of colorful and wacky animals–including the world’s dumbest chicken and my personal favorite–a giant crustacean David Bowie impersonator. She wants to please her dad, and her biggest mentor is her grandmother. The movie ends with the restoration of a life-giving plant goddess and Moana placing a pink shell on top of a pile of her forefathers’ heritage stones.

Yet no one questions her ability to lead the island. She never marries or has any romantic interests. And Moana’s desires and so much of her dialogue could easily be recorded with a male character without any significant changes to the story. I think any kid would want to be strong like Moana.

This is frankly an adorable movie, and one of the most genuinely fun and funny kids movies I’ve seen in a while. Though fitted through the story beats of many other Disney adventure films (like Hercules or Aladdin), the mythos of Moana is surprisingly complex. Sometimes, there might be a little too much storytelling and exposition. But as a high fantasy buff, I appreciated it. Not to mention how important storytelling is to Polynesian culture, and the fact that all the legends are told via animated tattoos on the biceps of Dwayne Johnson’s character (Maui).

What is also interesting about the movie is how it deviates from the common path of “Power through friendship” in favor of “Power comes from within.” Throughout are beautifully composed shots of stark, terrible loneliness. Moana’s best friends are a chicken and the open sea. Maui was rejected by his own parents, and copes with that pain through relentless egotism and affirmation through literally hugging and talking to himself. The stakes are high, with Moana leaving behind all her family and ostensible worldly happiness, but the villain is hardly personal. Instead, Moana and Maui seem to face down all the chaotic forces of fate itself with the power of what is either human willpower or that nebulous word–“Faith.” They live in a world of epic myth that parallels the uncaring world of real life, and their armament is a sense of personal destiny. That is the central conflict of the movie. Not revenge or lust for power. It is Existentialism Vs. Self-Determination.

In the end, randomness is destroyed and order is restored. Maui can only defeat his insecurity through personal confidence. The goddess of the sea chose Moana for her internal bravery, which she uses to approach the fiery villain (at risk to her life) and remind it that it has a good heart. Of all the lessons this movie could have decided to teach–especially to young girls–the most important was the importance of knowing who you are.

Vía Letterboxd – Garrett Sisson

My Easter

For the last 3 1/2 months, I have been living as if there were no redemption.

This entire weekend, the only thoughts I’ve had about Easter were how “ill-prepared” I was spiritually to face it.
Despite the entire religious observance being about grace, I have felt guilt at not spending enough time meditating and being “Christian enough” to fully appreciate it. I have had only a dull apathy.

This morning, I overslept and my inaction caused me to miss the celebration at my home church.

I have been praying that on Easter, God would show up, and wreck my life, and I think it is in that space of inability to pave the way for my own salvation that God works most.

When we judge ourselves, or when we are in a time in life where we only seem to encounter judgment, punishment, and no mercy–in other words, when we are in the Wilderness, it is easy to forget that the reason we continue living through it at all is the hope of our reward in heaven.

We are a fallen people, and though our world is being redeemed, it is full of self-inflicted darkness.
But the promise of Easter is that we have the power to overcome sin through the penalty having been transacted on the cross.

Because of that truth, nothing else in our lives matters but the love we show to each other, and our overflowing worship to God. The one is fueled by the other. Our enemies on earth are the very same people that Jesus died for, and they are the ones we must love the most relentlessly.

I hope wherever you are, you have had a blessed Easter.

Ode to Star Wars

The official trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be coming out tomorrow.

We pretty much know this for fact, most likely between 12 and 12:30pm EST, at the conclusion of Rian Johnson’s panel discussion at the Star Wars Celebration in Orlando. Every Star Wars mega-fan around the globe waits like it’s Christmas Eve.

Tomorrow, my state of mind could just as likely be overwhelmed in feverish joy as incredibly disappointed. If you know me in real life, you’ve probably heard my complex emotional ramblings about the franchise and what it’s meant to my life. I won’t repeat them comprehensively here. I should note that I think Episode VIII will be the series’ most important film yet. But before it drops and we see that first footage, I wanted to reflect on some absolutely good things the series has brought in the last 40 years that helped make it not only the world’s biggest franchise, but such a meaningful one.

Regardless of the newest film’s good/bad tone, or the quality of any given installment in the series, Star Wars gave me a childhood full of adventure. I got fed some from other influences. I played a lot of video games–Mario was a big one; I liked Buzz Lightyear, Micky and Daffy Duck, and books like the Chronicles of Narnia. But there was nothing like Star Wars. We had six lightsaber toys in our house, not including the build-your-own lightsaber, a ton of books and games from the Expanded Universe, the 2003 Animated Clone Wars Series from Cartoon Network, posters, and a giant Yoda cardboard Standup in our playroom. Actually we had two. I started my own Jedi Academy and trained all the other kids in my family to avoid the Dark Side.

I remember going to see Revenge of the Sith in theatres opening weekend. I distinctly remember being in middle school, and reading about the rumored “Sequel Trilogy,” and hearing that it would probably never be made, because the original Trio would be too old to star in it. I remember when the CGI Clone Wars movie came out, and being so disappointed. I started focusing on the negative qualities of the prequels, and made fun of George Lucas’s directing choices, even though these were the movies that made me most excited.

I think all things considered, Episode II: Attack of the Clones has some great and subtle meditations on the underside of pride and the nature of abuse. Yoda’s insistence on a knight’s order of neutrality, and his need to keep his head in the sand led to the rise of a shadow insurgent (or Phantom Menace) in the government right next door. I love the epic political grandstanding of the prequels, and how George Lucas relentlessly chased down all the economic and nationalistic implications of the Republic’s downfall and brought them to life. The philosophy of the prequels that Fear leads to Anger, which leads to Hate, to Suffering, is somewhat profound. Though the movies are filtered through the lens of swordfighting and magic, in the domestic sphere Anakin’s character is painted quite thoroughly as a hurt person who hurts people. When you stop critiquing, and just sit back and enjoy them for what they are, every Star Wars movie has brought some sense of wonder and provoked moral thought.

I may have watched the “The Force Awakens” trailer more times than any other preview for a movie. In particular, the second one which starts on a wrecked Imperial Star Destroyer and ends on Han Solo saying “Chewie, We’re Home” is a masterpiece of modern advertising. It was released a whole year in advance and was complete with unused footage, and doused in J.J. Abram’s “mystery box” metaphor and fanservice in the best way. It sold the whole world on a feeling–that this movie would return them to the magic of better times.

For me, Star Wars Episode 7 represented the completion of a promise, which was that one day, the hero Luke Skywalker would grow into a Jedi Master and train new young Jedi of his own. After the movie was announced, I waited three years in anticipation of seeing this childhood dream come to life on the big screen. I didn’t really care how good it was. Even if it wasn’t exactly how I imagined it, at least I would have the chance to see what one of my favorite characters had been up to after all this time. I became even more excited when so much of the advertising mysteriously had Luke missing. Where was he? What was the big reveal? Imagine my emotion when I realized, at the end of the film, that Luke would not say even a single word in the movie. It felt like I had been slapped with a 2×4. It slowly dawned on me that I would have to wait two more years to see how that cliffhanger resolved. I felt very betrayed and led on by what seemed like a cash grab to get me to come back to see Episode VIII. I wondered how the creators had missed something so seemingly obvious as reuniting the original trio onscreen.

But I can’t deny I am happy that Star Wars is back in the cultural mind again. I’m happy that people are making new material–TV Shows, books, comics, toys, and games–and that I have a reason to dig through the huge mythos of Star Wars when I’m not physically watching a new movie. Seeing all the different writers who have fleshed out different parts of the franchise and their creativity is inspiring.

I believe it’s incredibly important to always remember that when Disney brought back Star Wars, they made the leading character a woman. It’s easy to forget how risky a move this was when it happened. Though it’s true that all the new leads are good looking, Disney cast a woman, a black guy, and a Hispanic guy as the new trio, which is an insanely firm and progressive stance, considering how white and male-centric the Star Wars universe has always been. There was a chance that there would be backlash that would hurt the investment. I think this is why it’s so important that Rey’s arc is done right and has emotional resonance, though, because this move may be the sequel series’ greatest achievement on its own.

Sure, I’m going to Ep. 8 to see Luke. But it has also been a blast to watch Daisy Ridley mature in confidence as an actor behind the scenes, parallel to her character’s training in the films. The implication is that fans of Star Wars in the 70s, 2000s, and today could all be inspired by a young woman, regardless of their gender or age. I’m watching the series for the first time as an adult, but thanks to Rey, there are now young girls who can get into Star Wars the same way I did when I was a kid. And there are young boys who are being exposed to the radical idea that cool stories can be told about women, and there’s nothing shameful about enjoying them.

I have some very specific hopes for the new movie. In particular, I want to know whether Luke’s encounter with Palpatine and Vader at the end of the original movies represented his failure or success in controlling the impatience and anger that Yoda clearly said would drive him to become “an agent of evil.”

But there are many strong, lasting themes in Star Wars. By setting the prequels through the perspective of Anakin, Lucas made the films ultimately about Redemption. By revealing Vader as Luke’s father, the films became a family drama. Rian Johnson has said some of his influences for The Last Jedi are Westerns, which romanticize both those elements. The classic Western, like Star Wars, is a callback to times “long ago” in a place “far, far away,” in a wilderness where everyone is out for themselves and mysterious dangers could be around every corner.

If it’s not Johnson who will bring back that sense of exploration, risk, adventure, and character-based storytelling, it will be someone else. Luke Skywalker or not, it is in the blood of the franchise. No matter what the world sees concerning “The Last Jedi” tomorrow, or how I feel about it, I don’t think the handprints that Star Wars has left in its path will ever truly die out.