Prompted by: Moana and LotR
Before I start, I should probably make it super clear that when I first saw Moana back in November 2016, I LOVED it. I was absolutely over the moon for the lead woman of color, the lack of romantic subplot, and the soundtrack. I loved it so much that as soon as I left the theater, I texted Mr. Swiz and told him that it was an absolute must-see. So he went to see it and after he got out of the theater, he told me how much he… was disappointed with it. It sparked a fun conversation about representation and appropriation, the monetary nature of the movie business, and betrayals. I’ll leave those other heavier topics for another time, but today I want to talk about the betrayals. An excerpt from our conversation is as follows:
“A young viewer enjoys a story well told because it takes them somewhere, and they’re not thinking at all, at least probably not on a conscious level, about how the protagonist’s goals inform their character, or how the obstacles they might face define their journey and so on and so forth. When Maui inevitably turns his back on Moana before the third act, a less-jaded Swiz may have been anxious, instead of unsurprised, about his inevitable return.”
I didn’t think much of it at that point in time, largely due to the other conversation topics, but also because it’s a Disney movie and Disney movies tend to follow certain plot points (see Shang leaving Mulan on the mountain, Han’s infamous “if only there was someone who loved you” line, etc.)
As some of you know, I re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy this summer after more than a decade since my last reading. I found the books far more enjoyable and immersive this time around (for some reason my 10 year old brain struggled with the litany of middle earthen names) and upon completion decided to re-watch the movies as well. The movies feature several big departures from the book story line, some of which make sense given time constraints (eg: Tom Bombadil) and some that I wholeheartedly support (eg: Arwen having more to do than serve as a three-sentence love interest). However, there is one scene in the movies that really and truly irks me. During the ascent of the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Gollum uses lembas crumbs to frame Samwise and as a result, Frodo tells Sam to go home.
My frustration over this betrayal reminded me of Maui’s betrayal from last year. And it got me to thinking: what IS the deal with Maui’s entirely too predictable disappearance and reappearance? He leaves Moana after their first attempt to restore the heart, in a betrayal that many viewers saw coming a mile away. And even more predictable is his reappearance, right when Moana needs him the most. As it turns out, TV Tropes has a name for them both: Plot-Mandated Friendship Failure and Changed My Mind, Kid, respectively.
The fact that there’s such an abundance of examples available leaves me feeling a bit frustrated. I think there are certainly situations in which a betrayal is in-character or is even necessary. For example, Hans’ betrayal of Anna is Frozen is a sublime plot twist, and Han Solo’s departure in New Hope is 100% on par with what we already know about his character. But I’m rather of the belief that relationship drama– in any kind of relationship– shouldn’t be the sole thing keeping the story moving forward. A good writer should have other tricks up their sleeve to propel the story towards the desired climax.
In the book, Frodo and Sam made it through Mordor without any departures or betrayals, which spoke volumes about their relationship and the trust they had in each other despite all the odds. Why couldn’t they have done the same in the movie? Why couldn’t Maui have been injured or Moana’s spirit defeated by something other than Maui’s disappointment? Why couldn’t the two have maintained their friendship and found a different way to arrive at the point of perfecting their teamwork?
I re-watched Moana a few weeks ago, and while I might have been frustrated by the plot-mandated friendship failure, you can bet your bottom dollar I sang along with every word of ‘I Am Moana’.