It’s all Tolkien’s fault. After writing The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and a tough but rewarding slog that became The Silmarillion, he’s squarely responsible for fantasy as it is today. There are few works in the genre that don’t owe Middle-earth a significant debt, be it The Wheel of Time or Warhammer. From its elves of the woodland realm to inexplicably cockney orcs, his world left such a stamp on this branch of fiction that the two became inseparable. Countless franchises now rely on the template he left behind.
Such dependence can result in a feeling of déjà vu, however. Evocative though they may be, these stories often follow the same road-map until they become interchangeable with one another. That’s what makes Moana special. Despite relying on a well-worn quest to save the world, it draws inspiration from an ancient society we don’t always see in Hollywood – Polynesia. While this makes for a charming yet traditional odyssey, the setting and culture give it a uniquely powerful voice with which to stand apart. By doing so, Disney’s musical hints at what might be if sword-and-sorcery looked for inspiration outside medieval Europe once in a while.
I’m baffled by this reluctance, especially when there’s such an invigorating and diverse range of nations to draw a world from. It’d be like refusing to paint with anything but green, brown and yellow. The genre relies too heavily on enjoyable yet tired clichés, digging its heels into one small corner of the globe instead. By contrast, the likes of Pacific Island mythology is driven by a very different perspective. This in turn offers fresh and exciting narratives including animal reincarnation, a mother earth who forms the land beneath our feet, ocean exploration and demi-gods that shape the kingdom as we know it.
Although Moana faces accusations of cultural appropriation, we can at least be grateful it celebrates a society which sometimes goes unnoticed in entertainment. I hope it inspires someone to push the boat out and see what’s waiting for them over the horizon, as the film’s eponymous hero does.