On its own, Moana is a damn great time. As the latest in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ absurd hot streak, it’s more than a little disappointing.
I actively try and avoid grading on a curve, most of the time. It’s a practice I find more than a little unfair in most cases. Every film sets out to accomplish different things and different goals, for one, even ones part of the same series can deliberately reorient themselves in ways that are technically proficient or even exceptional but can appear to be a back-step for those who preferred earlier directions and incarnations – which is my long rambley way of saying that there’s nothing particularly wrong with Kung Fu Panda 3, it’s just not what I personally wanted out of a sequel to Kung Fu Panda 2 and so I feel kinda bad for marking it down as a consequence. It also doesn’t take into account that artists evolve and change as the years go on, so holding up one masterpiece they made beforehand as the barometer against which all of their subsequent work must be compared to, even deliberately minor works, can actively skew or harm perceptions of the new work that don’t deserve such unrealistic standards.
I bring this up because nearly all of my thoughts around Moana, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 56th Animated Classic, are caught up in that unavoidable issue of grading on a curve, of comparing the film to the ridiculous hot streak that the studio has been on since 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. I sat and watched Moana and was having a really enjoyable time – the two leads are great, the animation is gorgeous even by the usual Disney standards, and the film is very entertaining and well-made – but I never really tipped over into being in love with it or fully affected by it. I wondered whether that was down to various personal circumstances outside of the film, or whether the relatively minor flaws that I had noticed, and explained some of that disconnect, were actually deeper and more systemic than I had initially believed. But the more time I spent ruminating on Moana, the more the true reason became clear: it’s because Moana had to follow Zootopia.
Well, OK, it’s not specifically just Zootopia, quite possibly the single best animated feature that Disney have ever produced, that Moana is following, but that itself is the issue. Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on an inarguable creative hot streak ever since putting out The Princess and the Frog (feel free to stretch that back to Bolt or Meet the Robinsons if you’re particularly enthralled to those films), rebounding from the simultaneously experimental yet creatively bankrupt dry spell of the mid-2000s when they constantly seemed on the verge of total collapse. But the studio has charged its way back to the top of the game since then, first by taking highly-enjoyable bathes in nostalgia – Princess and the 2011 Winnie-the-Pooh literally reviving the spectres of traditional animation, Tangled going for a rather traditional Disney Princess tale – and more recently by trying more experimental takes on well-worn formulas – Frozen trying to make a revisionist and semi-critical Disney Princess Renaissance movie, Big Hero 6 going for a character-focussed pacifist Superhero movie, and Zootopia using the Talking Animal movie as the basis for an explicitly modern commentary on Race and Discrimination, and this is without mentioning Wreck-It Ralph which is a film I still can’t believe Disney made.
Each of these films, to me at least, have been better than the last. The storytelling has been getting better, the animation has been getting more visually astounding, the structure has been getting looser, and there’s been an overall shift towards something more experimental and bolder and riskier than one would typically expect from the studio who spent the 90s effectively making the exact same movie over and over again. Whilst your personal favourite may not be the most recent – for me, until Zootopia blew me away so totally, my favourite from this Third Renaissance vacillated between Wreck-It Ralph and Winnie-the-Pooh depending on the day – you can’t deny that the filmmaking and craftsmanship has been improving with every new film.
Consequently, however, that means that the bar has been raised, and arguably somewhat unreasonably. A 7-film hot-streak like this is absolute madness regardless of how many asterisks you wish to affix to it, and at a certain point things are going to return back down to Earth and it’s going to feel like a disappointment as a result. Now, that’s unfair, I recognise that, but it’s also unfortunately an unavoidable response, particularly when the film in question is purposefully attempting to aim lower than that previously set bar. What was an A 7 years ago now scans as more of a B+ due to what followed it. So, when Moana turns in a Ron Musker & John Clements Disney Princess movie, with no twists or loftier ambitions beyond refining that formula… yeah, it’s gonna end up feeling like a disappointment because I’ve been conditioned to expect the More that Moana just isn’t interested in providing.
Now, with all of that re-orienting of expectations and quality barometers done, this is the part where I can finally start talking about Moana, which really is a damn great film when taken in isolation. Musker and Clements are Disney institutions by this point – having started their directorial career together with The Great Mouse Detective, bringing the studio back from the critical brink with The Princess and the Frog, and in between those directing The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and Treasure Planet – and Moana primarily exists as a refinement and distillation of all of their prior films, strands of DNA from which are everywhere in this. As you might expect from that CV and descriptor, this means that Moana is always super entertaining even if it never quite manages to hit any real echelons, because Musker and Clements could be on auto-pilot and still turn in a joyous watch (*coughcoughHerculescough*). They’re the crowd-pleasing heavyweights, the ones who know how best to balance tone, how to pace the distribution of musical numbers, how to ratio the cast, and how to keep the plot simple without ever devolving into simplistic.
In fact, if Moana does have anything in the way of a unique hook, it would be the total economy of the film’s cast. The vast majority of the film takes place on Moana’s canoe as she (newcomer Auli’I Cravalho), the self-absorbed disgraced demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), and her imbecilic near-suicidal pet chicken (Alan Tudyk, really) journey across the sea to restore the Heart of Te Fiti that Maui stole a millennia ago before a corruptive darkness consumes the world and, more importantly, her island. And that’s really kinda it. Moana is the chief-to-be of her island but the film smartly refuses to check in with her island or her over-protective father who sternly cautions her against her adventurous instincts after she departs on her quest, there are a few detours early on for some action scenes with entertaining adversaries who are never seen again after their 5 minutes are up because they’ve served their purpose to the plot, the chicken can only communicate in clucks and really is too dense to live, and Moana is often aided by the spirit of the sea on her quest, but otherwise that really is it.
Much of the film does just rely on the interplay between Maui and Moana, as Maui’s crippling lack of self-belief after a millennia of being powerless and his pathological need to be loved and accepted by humans rubs up against Moana’s noble quest that also carries more than a little spark of her wanting to find a purpose outside of the tiny confines of her island. Fortunately, both of the characters are a joy to spend time in the company of. Their interplay carries more than a hint of the relationship that Nick and Judy had in Zootopia but the specifics of the two – in particular, Nick Wilde had nowhere near the level of bravado and self-preservation that Maui exhibits – help avoid a derivative nature. Plus, Johnson and Cravalho do wonders with their voice work, Cravalho especially lifts a character who could otherwise have felt too much like an amalgamation of Ariel, Jasmine, and Anna (with elements of Tiana) into a fully-rounded character who is unique unto herself.
The other big hook that Moana has is its commitment towards a faithful depiction of Polynesian culture, arriving at a time when Disney films (especially the Princess ones) have been not-undeservedly criticised for being too White and Western in their aesthetics and feels. Now, whether or not the film pulls that off is not for me to state definitively (take a wild guess as to why), but I can say that I got a very respectful feel from the way the film depicts Polynesian life, culture, and myths. There’s no exoticism or such going on here, but there is a sense of wonder and discovery on screen in depicting a culture that typically doesn’t become the subject of $150 million tentpoles, rather than yet another all-White doll-like aspirational fantasy-land.
Curiously, though, it also slides near-seamlessly into the standard Disney Princess formula, which Moana, even with a deliberately pared-down cast, follows to a tee. There’s the blatantly-manipulative prologue involving an utterly adorable infant version of our protagonist, a heroine of royal blood who wishes to be more independent than her strict over-protective ruling father would like, a family member with a ticking death clock looming over their head at all times, a quest that pairs her up with a curmudgeon who eventually warms up to her, the “I Want Song” and its End-of-Second-Act cousin the “Dark Reprise” (and its End-of-Film cousin twice-removed the “Triumphant Reprise into Credits”), the mid-film comedy villain who is slightly more threatening than first appears, the All Is Lost moment followed by a pep talk from the deceased family member, the non-violent resolution after the visually-spectacular violence setpiece… The works.
One may therefore be tempted to cry “appropriation!” at the film; an example of Disney gobbling up other cultures as nothing more than story Silly Putty to feed through their homogenising Disney machine to make the same movies they always do. Whilst I won’t begrudge anyone for thinking that, I instead choose to see it as proof of how strong Disney – and, in this case, screenwriter Jared Bush, who also co-wrote Zootopia – are at universal storytelling, at helping make themes and cultures that most may not experience resonate and enchant so thoroughly without ever backsliding into exoticism or full-on cultural appropriation, helped of course by that aforementioned tangible respect for the culture being tackled. That said, and as alluded to earlier, I’m not exactly the best person to speak authoritatively about this and can only offer up how I personally felt about this stuff for whatever that’s worth.
Something I am able to speak with authority on, however, is how Moana is a visual tour-de-force. I recognise that this may not carry as much weight as it should do, what with Disney regularly working wonders within their house aesthetic during this hot streak, but even by their prior standards Moana is something else. Recall the section during Frozen’s prologue where Anna and Elsa’s parents shipwrecked in the middle of a massive storm? Yeah? Well Moana is basically a whole movie of that, both in subtler ways – water is outstandingly rendered at all times, not just in the showier moments, and the boarding is dynamic and constantly engaging for a film primarily set on one canoe with three physical characters – and during some jaw-dropping setpieces. One very clearly homages Mad Max: Fury Road but at sea and is every bit as gorgeous as that sounds, the mid-film comedy villain (voiced by Jemaine Clement) allows the animators to play about with unique lighting arrangements, and by the time that the film’s villain Te Kā, a towering lava being, shows up for the climax, the visuals go into overdrive as the water, fire, and lighting effects all combine to create symphonies of visual artistry.
Seriously, this film is gorgeous, I’m not being hyperbolic.
Even when freed from the constraints of unfair expectations, though, Moana does fall victim to certain problems. As you may have gathered already, the film adheres very closely to the prior-set template for Disney Princess films, and particularly prior Musker & Clements works, and that slavish devotion means that certain plot points, mostly in the early going, land with no real impact; so easy as they are to predict in advance that any power they could have had is muted. The film opens up once we finally get to sea, and again once we finally meet Maui, but that does lead to the opening half hour, whilst not unenjoyable, feeling a bit too much like a first-gear prologue that’s taking just a little too long to properly get going.
Much more of an issue are the songs, written by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i, and man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda. On the positive end, they’re all pleasant enough to listen to and they’re far better distributed throughout the narrative, and consequently far more committed to the task of being a musical, than Frozen ever was, with even the film’s climax occurring to song. The issue is that Moana is a musical without a knockout number. There’s no song that stands out above the rest, no song with a melody that sticks in your head for even 10 seconds after the film finishes let alone days after, nothing particularly distinctive to remember them by beyond “The I Want Song” or “The One Where The Rock Raps” or “The One Where Jemaine Clement Busts Out His Bowie Voice Again.” Again, there are no fiascos or crapshots here, but there’s also a total lack of A Killer Number, which is rather a problem for a musical. Not every Disney musical can be an Aladdin or a Frozen, granted, some have to be a Pocahontas or a Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it still stings when the best I can say about the songs in a musical is “they’re pleasant enough.”
I recognise that I’ve sounded more than a little down on Moana throughout this review, including spending a literal page and a half talking it down before I even started properly talking about the movie itself, and some may therefore take it to mean that I don’t think the film is much more than just ok. That’s not true, Moana is a damn great time. I had a lot of fun, it’s anchored by two lovable characters with great vocal performances, and it is a stunning feast for the eyes. On its own, Moana is pretty great. But I just can’t help but grade it on a curve, on a mighty unfair curve it’s not attempting to conform to, and as the latest film from a studio that has consistently raised the bar in recent years to a degree not seen since Pixar’s run from the late-90s to the mid-2000s, it’s kind of a disappointment. It’s good, but it’s good in all the ways you’d expect it to be, that extra magic just isn’t quite there. It’s a B+ after a string of solid As, which still makes it a cut above a lot of the rest of the game, but it represents a comedown somewhat.