I wonder how Disney’s 2016 box office numbers would hold up against every other studio combined. They can’t be far behind, and might even have a lead. Regardless, Moana closes out another strong year in animation for the Mouse’s modern day monopoly.
Moana is visually stunning, a factor that pushes the very simple story forward. I should probably specify movie vs. character to sound significantly less creepy towards this animated feature. Let’s try that again. Disney’s Moana is a visually stunning film, a factor that pushes the very simple story forward. A two-hour shot of this movie’s water would’ve been certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The Polynesian setting certainly lends itself to an impressive backdrop, but Disney spares no effort in bringing this cinematically underutilized culture to life. If you can ignore the magical properties of Moana’s insta-drying hair, scenes on the water make audiences feel as if they’ve actually been swept away to sea. The music keeps pace with the scenery, and the entire experience is a very relaxing adventure.
Despite a definite thumbs-up if forced to rank Moana on the 0-1 scale, I’m a little curious as to how people are so taken by this movie. Perhaps I haven’t read enough, but the general consensus seems to place Moana in contention for favorite animated film of the year. I’ll accept that the majority won't join me in my undying campaign for a Kubo and the Two Strings Oscar. But among the more mainstream hits, I felt Zootopia had a lot more going for it. Moana left me impressed to an average extent, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a bit overrated.
For the sake of being thorough, I’ll reiterate that Moana is definitely a good movie. There’s nothing wrong with the Disney formula, but if you’re looking for some game-changing element (which they so often create), you might find Moana to be somewhat of a Disney paint-by-numbers. An admirable princess sets out on a journey with songs and sidekicks towards a conclusion that has something to do with the power of love. Heihei had to be the most useless animal companion in the history of Disney sidekicks. But it’s a Disney animated feature, so there has to be an animal sidekick. With the exception of Moana’s power number, the songs did little to further the development of any characters. But it’s a Disney Princess movie, so there has to be songs. That entire bedazzled crab sequence was a mess. It felt like a deleted scene, and I’m sure there were better ideas available for a dangerous detour. Several of Moana’s visual themes and moments actually shared some similarities with Kubo, but lacked the unique perspective and subtleties that tip my vote in Laika’s direction.
Alongside visuals, Disney’s Moana is carried by the performance of an immensely talented newcomer. I really think that Dwayne Johnson guy is going places. In all seriousness, Auli’i Cravalho’s leading voice treats audiences to one of Disney’s most lovable protagonists to date. I imagine there'll be plenty of work waiting as a follow-up to such a memorable character. She doesn’t have all that much of an arc, but it’s a delight to follow her boisterous optimism and bold demeanor. The only change Moana really undergoes is from wanting to leave the island but can’t, all the way to wanting to leave the island and can. She’s already brave, already capable, and already has some understanding of her destiny. But the story is more about Moana’s persistence than her growth. Maui does mature over the course of the film, satisfying any need for a character transformation. But The Rock’s always-appreciated presence is more of a backdrop that provides an energetic shot of adrenaline for the adventure.
It’s clear that Disney didn’t draw up the highest degree of difficulty for this one, instead prioritizing fun. Stylistically, this felt like their modern Hercules. But it lacked the hero’s development, some creativity in the adversity department, and whatever flair it is that makes Hercules such an underrated classic. Ultimately, you don’t need much more than two great performances on top of a great looking movie to craft an animated hit. And that’s exactly what Disney’s Moana brings to the table. Real villains and a deeper plot might’ve helped, but nothing will stop you from enjoying this movie.