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Is there any pop cultural institution as broad reaching or as powerful as Disney Studios? Certainly, there are competitors, most notably with Warner Brothers who gave the world Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Batman, and the Looney Tunes, but they still rank second place compared to Disney’s cultural dominance.
We’re currently in the midst of Disney’s most influential period in the cultural zeitgeist, marked by unparalleled critical and box office success from subsidiaries like Pixar and Marvel, their absolute dominance of the fantasy genre through live action fairy tales, and their return to the head of the table in animated family blockbusters.
I’ve taken to calling it the Disney New Wave and Moana is the latest crest of it after the severe trough that was Through the Looking Glass. So, how does the Polynesian island adventure film from the directors of Hercules, Little Mermaid, and Treasure Planet shake out? Okay, it’s really okay.
Let me be clear from the get go- Moana is not a bad movie. If anything, part of Disney’s current success is how well they manage to avoid making out and out bad movies save for the ones with Johnny Depp. What Moana is, is average- it’s a solid, fun family adventure movie with a really good central turn from Dwayne Johnson and an enjoyable post-Hamilton outing for the music of Lin-Manuel Miranda.
It’s not as strong as Big Hero 6 or Wreck-It-Ralph or even Frozen, though it’s definitely cribbing from a familiar formula. See, while Frozen was an attempt to self-critique the ‘90s classic Disney formula and Maleficent was a deconstruction of the classic Disney formula, Moana just IS classic Disney formula.
Follow along if you know the words- Moana is about the young girl Moana, the daughter of the ruler of her isolated village that’s chaffing against her highborn station as she craves for more. Inspired by a wise old elder who becomes part of nature she leaves her home in search of adventure, discovers a male friend who’s not quite what he seems, and learns she’s stronger than she ever knew- through song. Oh and there’s an animal sidekick as well.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a formula Disney movie, especially given how much Moana does to avoid traps of true love and false romance that tended to bring down a lot of the ‘90s films. But, at the same time, it also leaves Moana much less filling than the more recent entries, especially given how many recent Disney films rely on the same “mismatched road trip” story engine. What’s more, Moana ends up a much more structurally disjointed outing than any of the previous films.
Moana is structurally most similar to the likes of Brave and Wreck-It-Ralph where there’s a lot of divide between the various elements. The split between the life of leadership and the ocean adventure stuff is very similar to Brave’s breakdown, but the sea adventure ends up so episodic and segmented it doesn’t hang together.
A lot of this boils down to a slow middle act coupled with an overly deflated finale. Moana and Maui, the Rock’s character, spend so much time screwing around with ocean hazards like killer coconuts and an evil glitter crab that there’s no real sense of urgency about their mission. It’d be like if in Frozen Anna and Kristoff stopped on their quest to deal with random dragons and bridge trolls.
The choppy structure could be overcome with a stronger third act but the finale is really where things fall apart as Moana’s biggest flaw shines through- it’s not really about anything. Now, to be clear, animated movies are under no obligation to be “about stuff,” though that certainly makes them better and more memorable, but Moana is actively trying to be about something.
The film is littered with active questions about personal identity and how we define ourselves, the coda of the movie and Moana’s big, emotional song are about knowing who you are but we never find out who Moana actually IS.
Everything we know about Moana is just superficial standards- that she wants more from life than her role on the island, that she’s insecure about her abilities, that she can be strong when push comes to shove. The most insight we get into who she really IS comes from a B-plot about her ancestors being ocean voyagers and her wanting to return to that but it’s hardly a real identity when you get down to it. She’s still very personable and fun to be around, but there’s just no a lot to her character beyond being likable.
It’s a shame too because the film is always hinting at a bigger and richer story around the margins. This is where that Hercules influence comes in, the way the film has absorbing and compelling ideas scattered around the plot but they never coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts. For instance, Moana isn’t like Jasmine or Ariel, an idol princess; she’s an active member of her community who works to help her people every day.
She embraces this reality and only leaves her island when blight and famine strike them, but why doesn’t she lead her whole people out with her? Her father may disagree on that point, but they’re both leaders, she has equal claim to guide and lead her island and a story about that, about realizing your parents aren’t making the right decision and needing to lead as an equal, would be a lot more impactful and emotional.
This is all sounding a bit negative so let me reiterate- Moana is not a bad movie. The hints of greatness do serve to highlight what it could’ve been but the good stuff is still there, and it’s still very enjoyable. Firstly, the Polynesia aesthetic is a great addition to the Disney canon, and the animators find excellent stuff to do in the setting. The previously mentioned action scenes with the pirate coconuts is a real stand out, and the finale features some spectacular visuals.
The Rock also hands in a stellar performance as Maui. Maui’s a unique character, balancing between egotistical windbag and super powered being of myth, basically landing him somewhere between Hercules and Krunk from The Emperor’s New Groove regarding past Disney characters. He’s the only character where all the “stay true to yourself” stuff rings true, as there is a “real” Maui buried under all the bluster and narcissism.
Where the film shines though is the music. The songs are a magnificent blend of Polynesian rhythms and chants with Miranda’s unique story hip-hop and the more straightforward Disney musical approach. Everything is incredibly memorable and sweeping in a way that sneaks up on you, and you find yourself wishing they were all much longer. The only real problem is when the music needs to convey emotion and nothing else.
Miranda’s style is best suited to telling you a story through the music, so when he’s called upon for a Moana’s princess anthem, it ends up a little weak. There’s nothing of the emotional caliber of ‘Let It Go,’ or ‘Reflection,’ or ‘Part of your World,’ or even Miranda’s own ‘Quiet Up Town.’ Though, the song, ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ limitations are also rooted in Moana’s lack of identity I mentioned earlier.
So, that’s Moana- good but not perfect and definitely not as strong as the rest of Disney’s animated output in the 2010s. I do think that a lot of people are going to enjoy it and it’s certainly a fun movie, even if it feels a lot more like a pilot for a TV show than an actual film. If Disney was hoping to use this film to launch a new franchise in the style of their ‘90s hits, they’ve probably got a rock solid choice on their hands. Most of all, I think Moana is likely to be the right kind of okay for this moment in time, sort of like Force Awakens was last year.
Neither of them is a great movie but they’re both pushing for diversity through a fun and interesting palette that’s more about welcoming people back to the familiar, blending together old ideas with new faces. Given how burnt out we’ve all become on Frozen, which was a harsh critique of the Disney princess formula, such a fun return to it with none of the previous baggage is probably just what audiences want right about now. It’s a movie of the moment, probably destined for harsher re-appraisals in years to come but maintaining a lot of love for the stuff it does get right.
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