Why Moana Didn’t Make Me Cry

I cry at movies. On our first movie date, I startled my future husband with a teary breakdown in the theater that has gone on to become family legend.

We were watching Toy Story 2.

In my defense, movies entertain by causing us to experience a whole range of alternating emotions: joyful, fearful, happy, sad.

It’s summer vacation, time to catch up on the laughs and tears we’ve missed over the past year. We started our summer movie binge with last summer’s Disney hit, Moana. The movie was visually stunning: amazing graphics, mythic symbolic imagery. Reminiscent of Aladdin, Disney used the demigod, Maui (instead of the Genie), to poke fun at its in-house conventions.

But Moana didn’t make me cry. Not one single tear, not a sniffle from the lady who had to hide her tears from the six-year-old sitting beside her during Frozen. My emotional engagement with Moana was the minimal possible to hold my interest in the story. And, after several listens to the Moana soundtrack, only one song sticks with me:

This song embodies the classic Disney trope, the protagonist who has a dream, and the movie portrayed Moana’s dream well. She was a reverse Little Mermaid: girl on land longs to explore the ocean, instead of girl in the ocean longs to explore the land.

But a character’s dream is not the whole story. In the course of following that dream, the protagonist  forms a deep, personal connection with someone he or she truly loves.

Moana had the dream. But she never made the personal connection.

In the Little Mermaid, Ariel has a passion for life on land, but doesn’t sell out kin and kingdom for legs until she falls in love with a human prince. Street rat, Aladdin, wants to be somebody, but only impersonates a Prince to rescue Princess Jasmine. Though Frozen seemed to eschew Disney formula romance, it’s actually the most touching love story of the three: the love between two sisters. The possibility that Elsa would fail to save Anna ripped my heart in two.

Threatening the personal connection between the protagonist and the character they love is what brings an audience to the edge of its seats. It’s what makes me cry. It’s what Moana was missing.

Moana did an awesome job using imagery to depict the mythic tale of a heroine adventuring at sea. But the character fell flat. We were given mere sketches of how Moana felt about her place in the community she left behind. Only the most tenuous student-mentor connection was formed on her journey. There was never any question where her ultimate loyalty would lie.

It’s the perfect movie to watch if you ever run out of tissues.