[WARNING: Contains spoilers for both Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Moana. You’ve been warned.]
In the past week, I saw two very different Disney-owned properties. On one hand, there was a family-friendly animated musical adventure loosely based on Pacific Islander folklore; and on the other, there was a spinoff to one of the most successful franchises ever that focused on war and gritty reality IN SPACE and was decidedly not for children. Oddly enough, I found a lot of bizarre similarities in both of them. Not necessarily in story or themes, but how they fit into 2016’s studio filmmaking climate and Disney’s modern branding.
As I have often complained, 2016 was an absolutely hideous year for studio films. Many were outright disasters of construction and born of either incompetence or choking on ambition (e.g. Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Warcraft, Alice Through the Looking Glass) and the ones that weren’t were either bland and dull (e.g. The Legend of Tarzan, The Huntsman: Winter’s War) or stunk of a particularly noxious white cishet male cult of personality (e.g. Sausage Party, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). So really, it was less a search for studio films that were good and more one for films that kept their heads above water well enough that they weren’t considered utter garbage.
Neither Moana nor Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a particularly great film; both have crippling flaws that keep me from wholeheartedly embracing their good qualities. On the other hand, they still manage to be relatively functional on a film level, so they were rewarded with massive box office grosses and effusive praise. Okay, that’s mean, but my question remains as to why we continue to reward mediocrity rather than showcase greatness, and both of these films are emblematic of trends in studio filmmaking that have been particularly prominent this year.
Before I talk shit about the creative endeavors of people who have more money and influence than I could ever hope to have, it’s only fair that I reiterate that yes, there were things I liked about both Moana and Rogue One.
Let’s start with Moana. First of all, this movie is absolutely gorgeous. It contains some of the most inspired images in the Disney canon, from the blending of 2-D drawings resembling Maui’s tattoos and 3-D in the “You’re Welcome” sequence to an undersea alternate dimension full of disgusting hellish creatures to a very fun and silly Mad Max: Fury Road-inspired action beat. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker clearly had a lot of visual creativity saved up in the years since their previous feature The Princess and the Frog, and Moana really lets it all out.
The cast is fantastic as well, and they’re aided by a song score full of inspired tunes and lyrics that, while not one of the best entries in the canon, has plenty of standouts (except that stupid Bowie-esque crab song. What the hell was that). Auli’i Cravalho is a revelation as the titular character, and I desperately hope she gets more roles in the future. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also performed far above expectations, as I wasn’t aware of him having any musical experience prior to this film, but his performance on “You’re Welcome” is the cherry on top of some really great comedic and dramatic work here.
While I do have some issues with Moana’s depiction of its title character and her surrounding culture (I’ll get to those later), I deeply appreciate that this is the first Disney’s done a story about leadership: so much of the film is dedicated to what kind of leader Moana will be for her people and her personal growth as an independent person, which is a story we haven’t seen Disney tell before, and especially not with a main character of color. While a lot of elements of the film are recycled from previous Disney successes, this one is decidedly fresh, and I hope Disney continues to pursue stories in this vein.
I don’t have as many positive things to say about Rogue One, but contrary to what my griping on Twitter may indicate, there were, in fact, things I liked! For one, I’m pleased that the focus on great production design and practical effects that The Force Awakens returned to (mostly) won out here: the beach locations for the final battle are great, as is Jedha’s construction. The third act battle is also gracefully directed and full of great action beats, from the introduction of the ATAT walkers to the Rebellion finally breaking through the shields. It manages to be really tense and thrilling on the merits of the filmmaking alone, which isn’t something I can say about most blockbusters of late. The cast is also spectacular despite their limitations, with Donnie Yen and Ben Mendelsohn being easy standouts. The decision to cast an extremely diverse array of actors in the Rebellion roles is also huge, considering the current political climate, and is a particularly big deal in its inclusion of Asian actors such as Yen and Jiang Wen after Star Wars has so heavily borrowed from Asian cultures in previous entries while not including Asian cast members.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled complaining.
Above, I mentioned that Moana is the first Disney animated story with a female protagonist to truly focus on leadership and the particulars of what would make someone a good leader within her specific society, and you’ll notice that I didn’t call it a “Disney Princess story”, because it isn’t, not really. Moana is indeed the daughter of the island’s chief and is next in line for the throne, but the typical trappings of a Disney Princess narrative are, for the most part, either absent or given tweaks that push them out of the studio’s comfort zone. Disney Princesses usually have some kind of yearning to escape what they see as a prohibitive and even oppressive culture to get more out of life, and the solution to their issue is inevitably heterosexual romance. Ariel wants to see what the world of humans has to offer, her father says it’s dangerous, she eventually finds happiness on land with Prince Eric and marries him. Rapunzel wants to leave the tower Mother Gothel has trapped her in so that she can see where the far-off lights come from, Gothel psychologically abuses her into staying at first, she eventually escapes and finds happiness with Flynn Rider and her royal parents, and marries Flynn. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that formula, it’s been proven to work in most cases. Where Moana gets into trouble is trying to subvert that formula…in the framework of a story that has pretty much nothing to do with that formula thematically.
Moana grows up wishing she could return to the ocean after being fascinated by it as a child and unknowingly given the magical plot-starting MacGuffin, but is prevented by her strict father who wants to raise her to rule properly (sort of an inverse of Clements and Musker’s own Little Mermaid). This is pretty familiar territory at first, but the twist here is that Moana isn’t just motivated by childlike fascination: her desire to go beyond the reef around the island into uncharted waters is inextricably tied with her discovery that her people used to be voyagers that explored the oceans looking for new islands, and with the knowledge that the island’s resources are slowly drying up. The leadership angle isn’t just window dressing on a story that’s already been done: it’s a genuine, committed thematic thread.
The film’s writers don’t seem to respect the audience enough to just let that stand on its own, however. They seem to be under the impression that for the story to resonate with modern audiences at all, they have to poke fun at Disney Princess clichés and Chosen One narratives without really subverting either, and therefore not really adding anything to the established themes but in fact making the story feel more familiar than it already is. It’s not that Disney hasn’t made fun of themselves before: they gently ribbed their previous creations throughout Enchanted and in a couple throwaway lines in Frozen. But where Enchanted was explicitly a sendup of Disney Princess films, and arrived at the subversive conclusion of Giselle choosing a career and a relationship that took time and effort to build over a fairytale ending, and Frozen was somewhat less direct in its approach by featuring a main character who ascends to royalty without a romantic co-lead and having the more conventional “Disney Prince” character be an asshole, Moana is content to just say “Disney Princesses are a thing. Haha, how dumb,” when that’s not even the story it’s telling.
Maui declares that Moana must be a princess because she wears a dress and has a talking animal sidekick, and Moana says she’s not a princess. If the writers had any restraint, that’d be the end of it. But no, Maui has to continually call Moana a “not-princess,” quip about “You’d better not sing right now!” and question why she was chosen by the ocean to restore the magical MacGuffin. And when Moana reaches her lowest point and genuinely does question why she was chosen, the movie totally cops out on giving any real reason for that, having her sing a song about how “the call was inside [her]” all along, and then immediately get right back up and go back to questing after some help from Ghost Granny. That’s not subversive, it’s just acknowledging tropes and plowing forward anyway without offering any kind of twist on it. If you want to write a Chosen One story, fine, go ahead. It is tried and true and it works. Just don’t piss in my glass and call it Granny’s Peach Tea.
It’s not even just that Maui’s jokes about princesses and Chosen Ones are thematically self-destructive, they’re not even funny to begin with. In fact, much of the comedy in Moana doesn’t work, which is problematic, considering Disney seems intent on making most of their animated fare primarily comedies. Zootopia’s greatest weakness was also its rather weak sense of humor, from a plucked-from-nowhere Breaking Bad reference to some too-easy jokes about rabbit overpopulation, but what held it together was its emotional sincerity. It wants you to believe in Judy and Nick’s journeys as characters, and it manages to create two compelling people to follow without resorting to undercutting its own genuine feelings with bad jokes at the characters’ own expense. Moana, on the other hand, wedges in not one but two strained slapstick animal sidekicks and makes every other line one of the dreaded stock comedy phrases that should never be used again. Fun times.
And then there’s the matter of the film being praised for having no romance and therefore it’s THE MOST FEMINIST MOVIE EVER OMG. Yes, romance is a plot device that Disney’s leaned on a lot for its female characters, but…can we ask for some intersectionality here? Yes, representation of Polynesian cultures is important, but for Disney to take a female Polynesian character, put her in an all-too-typical ancient setting where all the natives live in huts and wear grass skirts, and desexualize her by making her childlike when she’s clearly a damn adult by the time the story begins is a HUGE issue in when in American culture, women of color are not seen as beautiful or worthy of love and affection unless it’s through a fetishy white lens. It honestly really skeeves me out that Clements and Musker are getting feminist credentials for doing this bare-minimum approach designed to appeal only to white women. Stop giving white men credit they don’t deserve, dammit!
Also, calling a film itself “feminist” rather than the ideologies it expresses is its own barrel of stupid, but I’m not gonna get into that now.
Rogue One’s disconnect between form and content is striking, as well. It’s been consistently touted that Rogue One is a huge shift from previous entries in the Star Wars canon because it’s beholden to the genre conventions of the war movie in a way that no Star Wars film has been before. That’s not nothing: it certainly sets it apart from The Force Awakens in tone and aesthetic, which is pretty huge in the current trend of all entries in film franchises looking and feeling as much alike as possible (see: the Marvel Cinematic Universe). It’s certainly a good enough hook that it made me want to go see it. Actually watching Rogue One, however, revealed to me that neither Gareth Edwards nor the crack team of four different writers that worked on this thing really understand how the conventions of war films work, or how to apply them to the context of a relatively bloodless PG-13 franchise movie.
The thing about war movies is that you need to have characters that are worth caring about enough to follow them through the heat of battle, fearing that any moment they could be killed. Or, if the point is for your characters to be awful bastards, you need to at least have them be awful bastards in compelling ways that contribute to your film’s thesis. Apocalypse Now, for instance. Pretty much everyone in that movie is an awful bastard, but they’re motivated awful bastards and their actions are related to specific things that Francis Ford Coppola wants to address about the ugliness and pointlessness of the Vietnam War. It’s a bit much to ask Rogue One to be as compelling a watch as Apocalypse Now, but it’s nowhere near up to the task.
Every single character in Rogue One has only one emotional setting, and that is “grimly determined.” The heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), for instance, starts off wanting to find her father, Galen (a criminally under-utilized Mads Mikkelsen), after the Empire took him from her as a child to work on the Death Star. She conveys her desire in the form of a stiff upper lip and thousand-yard mildly angry stare at all times, never deviating from this, even when cracking jokes at the expense of the unfunny robot comic relief. When Galen is killed while she’s trying to rescue him, Jyn is allowed the emotion of “sad” for that one scene only. Two scenes later, she is once again grimly determined to stop the Empire, making speeches about how rebellions are built on hope, hope is where the heart is, you can’t stop the hope, hope is a many-splendored thing, and other hokey platitudes that Edwards and Tony Gilroy tiredly allowed to pass into the final product, despite her technically being at her lowest point after seeing her father murdered and having no reason to be nattering about hope. There ends her arc. Yay, character-building! Wait, no. You didn’t build a character. You made a quote machine for the film’s IMDB page.
Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has the faintest inkling of what could maybe be considered an arc, if you squint, but he too is mostly another robot who gets his switch flipped from “follow orders” to “hope” with no transition. In the scene where our group of rebels flies to the compound where Galen is being held, he gets orders to snipe Galen from afar, while Jyn is trying to rescue him, but he decides not to, because…reasons. I suppose you could say that he decided not to because he saw Jyn’s humanity in the face of destruction and death and realized that maybe the Rebellion isn’t really that great, but that would require the writing to actually support that reading, which it doesn’t, because in the very next scene he defends the orders even after Jyn tells him he’s “no better than a Stormtrooper” (god, what a terrible, clumsy fucking line), and he never apologizes to Jyn for fully intending to kill her father until the writer magically realized “Oh wait, he can’t be a bad guy!” and has him go along with Jyn’s plan for infiltrating the Scarif base despite having no reason to do so.
The rest of the supporting cast has even less personality than either Jyn or Cassian. Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) seems to be Nervous Nelly comic relief at first but he doesn’t actually say or do anything funny, he doesn’t ever give a reason why he defected from the Empire, and he’s subjected to a bizarre alien squid mind-rape torture scene that appears to give him amnesia at first…but then he’s fine one scene later. Chalk that one up to reshoots. Poor Donnie Yen has to trudge through scene after scene as Chirrut Îmwe with no character beyond his catchphrase “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me,” which is cruel to make an actor say once, let alone ad nauseum. There’s a bit of weight in his relationship with Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, a bulky gunner, but none of it is in the writing and can be entirely credited to Yen and Wang’s performances. Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) gets many, many lines of dialogue devoted to what a badass extremist he is, but nothing we see the character do actually reflects that, making whatever the hell voice Whitaker’s doing the most interesting thing about him.
I’ve seen it said that the characters aren’t supposed to be likable, because it’s a war movie and war brings out the worst in people. I’d say that this is only an acceptable defense when 1) your main characters actually have enough personality to hate and 2) they aren’t fighting Space Nazis. That’s the thing: the Empire still isn’t any different than it’s been depicted before. They still draw heavily on fascist imagery in their depiction, and they still spout fascist ideals at the drop of a hat. When your characters are battling actual fascists, it is not the fucking time to pull out some “both sides” shit like the film seems to be attempting to do but never fully commits to. Our first impression of the Rebellion is not a positive one: they threaten to put Jyn back in Empire prison camps if she doesn’t comply, they put hits out on both Saw Gerrera and Galen for no discernable reason, and when large portions of planets are blown up in the process, they don’t seem to care. Yet, by the end of the film, the Rebellion is Suddenly Good Again and sends troops to help Jyn with her operation because they have to be good by the time A New Hope rolls around, and it’s suddenly as if none of the reckless assassination attempts or wanton disregard for life happened.
The “If you continue to fight, what will you become?” line from the first teaser that is tellingly not in the final product seems to indicate that there’s a version of Rogue One that actually Goes There with damning the Rebellion’s crimes and commits to showing the horrors of war. What we eventually got chickens out on that, settling for “yay hope” platitudes mixed with an “everyone dies” ending that, while inevitable, feels deeply un-earned because these characters aren’t interesting enough to care about as they go to their deaths.
One last thing: while I did praise the film for its diverse casting above (what feels like forever ago), how the numerous actors of color are used does not sit right with me at all. Saw, the film’s only named black character, is killed off early on, and the rest of the POC cast exists mostly to help Jyn, the white protagonist, as she leads the Rebellion into a suicide mission. Again, if the film had committed to fleshing out its cast, this may not have been a problem, as they would have displayed actual reasons to do so besides “believing in hope” or whatever. As it is, it mostly comes across as an army of expendable men of color (and ONLY men, all the women are white, which is its own persistent problem) kowtowing to the will of a white woman with no real reason to do so other than that she’s Important.
At this point, I feel like I shouldn’t even have to draw the connections with the numerous other studio films released this year that had similar problems in tone, character development, obvious reshoot-induced continuity errors, and white people getting way more credit for attempts at diversity than they deserve. You’ve probably been reading the news about the absolute shitshow in both pre- and post-production that Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman and Warcraft all endured, because it’s been forced down all our throats despite the studios’ best efforts to assuage fears. But we keep coming back anyway, hoping that this will be the one studio film to blow all our expectations away, this time they’ll get it right and show us some real movie magic.
Well, fuck that shit. Don’t give them your money. Just don’t. I’m all out of faith in big studios to tell coherent stories that don’t coast on peoples’ familiarity with name brands either cynically through terrible self-parody or over-earnestly through using it as the only real emotional hook in their clanging, incoherent misfires. I don’t trust these largely white, straight, cis, male-run companies to tell stories that actually celebrate inclusion rather than using its characters of color/queer characters/disabled characters as the butts of jokes or pushing them to the sidelines. 2016 killed a lot of things for me, but after a Herculean effort, it finally killed any hope I had for studio filmmaking to ever succeed without massive caveats again.