There isn’t much negative to say about Moana. It features most of the elements that we associate with a film developed in the Disney Animation Studio — cute characters, catchy songs and a rhythm that acclimates itself to the escape-seeking moviegoer looking for another dive in the Disney ocean.
If I had to categorize the latest film from Disney though, it would have to be predictable. Moana follows many of the beats we are accustomed to seeing from the studio’s output and it never really deviates from them enough to become anything substantial.
The film follows Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), a chieftain-to-be on an island in the Pacific whose familial obligations bog down her true desire to surf the oceans and explore the uncharted terrain. That opportunity is thrust upon her sooner than she thought when she learns that she must seek out a fabled warrior to help return a legendary stone to its rightful place.
The warrior is the demi-god, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who has been in hiding for thousands of years after losing the stone in a battle with its guardian — which also took away his iconic fish hook staff. After some musical persuasion, the two take off in search of the island that once housed the stone with Maui motivated by his desire to finally defeat its guardian — as well as his new found obligation to Moana.
It would take too long to list the amount of previous Disney movies that featured a lead character struggling to fit into his/her familial obligations and proposed responsibilities with a quest off their homeland following suit. As I mentioned before, Moana doesn’t steer away from these other examples — actually it does the opposite and rides right into them.
But Moana has personality (both the movie and character) and that keeps it from feeling like a re-tread of past efforts. The songs were written by Hamilton star Lin Manuel-Miranda and add a gusto of wit and exuberance that echo even the hallowed greats of the House of Mouse. Johnson voicing Maui feels tailor-made as the character exudes as much of the charisma and charm of the actor as technically possible.
I think that Moana features all of the qualities of a successful film, and it is one (both in terms of box office and technical skill). The movie is good and immediately elevates itself into the upper echelon of the latest era of Disney animated movies that began with Tangled and is headlined by Frozen.
But, I also would be remissed if I didn’t discuss the borrowed worry that these Disney movies have with me as a critic.
Disney Animation Studio began to be run by John Lasseter of Pixar fame in 2006 and was truly kicked off by the release of Tangled to both critical and commercial acclaim. After seething in satisfactory work for many years, Disney had erupted with a defining feature that felt fresh yet echoed the works of the classics.
At the same time, it prided itself on integrating the qualities of Pixar that made the Lasseter-headed studio a dominating force for so many years leading up to the eventual purchase by Disney. This “new brand” of Disney felt like the classics revitalized, but with the ideals of the present and future. These characters were nuanced and fearless with their convictions — lacking the more conservative and restrained values of even the classic films.
The new direction was good, and most of the end products have reflected that, but I also can’t help but feel like these entries lack the depth of the classics — or even their contemporaries. Disney seems much more interested in re-inventing the wheel rather than crafting a new one, and while this doesn’t destroy storytelling, it sure hinders it from exploring new ground.
I applaud Moana for so many qualities and even find myself humming tunes from the movie at multiple instances since watching it. But that doesn’t keep it from being a film that only faces the surface level issues, and this holds it — and the majority of the recent wave for Disney — back from being the transcendent animated features that they want to be.
The studio is cranking out very entertaining movies, and ones that I will most likely be seeing each time they are released. But they lack the punch of the ones that define the medium and I highly doubt that the studio has the conviction to attempt to reach for that level anytime soon, leaving me with a small swell of disappointment following each new viewing.