We are now well into a major transformation for Disney Animation, the fabled studio that Walt began and initiated theatrical, feature length ‘toons back to the days of Snow White. Over the decades there have been ebbs and flows, with a major renaissance taking place in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s with a new generation of storytellers taking over from the old guard. Lion King, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast took the world by storm, showing a new way forward for the form.
Then of course a little CGi upstart started getting all the attention, with Pixar’s toys (both metaphorical and literal) getting all the glory, while showing that story above style was the driving force. The braintrust at Pixar would eventually take over a then faltering Disney studio and try, over the next decade or so, to resuscitate the group independently, allowing a kind of healthy competition that drew on the strengths of both aspects of the business.
What has transpired, then, is something quite remarkable – in no uncertain terms, Disney Animation is producing film-by-film better output now than the venerable Pixar. Both studios use similar CGI tools, both incubate stories, both play to tropes and elements that have shaped their house style. Yet from the explosion that was Frozen we’ve seen two pretty terrific films – first, Zootopia, a masterwork of playful characters and surprisingly nuanced and complex politics, and now Moana, a film that tackles the very notion of the “princess” movie made famous by the Mouse House and sets it afloat in a sea far away.
The ingredients here are laudable – helmed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind Mermaid and Aladdin, with a script by Jared Bush who was one of the keys on Zootopia, there’s the contribution of superstar Dwayne Johnson, music by famed Samoan artist Opetaia Foa’I, Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Mancina, one of the main contributors the Lion King soundtrack.
The original version of the film had Kiwi Taika Waititi behind it, and while he was relegated to a “special thanks” at the end I’d like to believe that some of his spirit has been maintained in the story. Ostensibly it’s another heroes journey, one that’s often at the heart of Disney flicks, this one set in a fictional island in Polynesia. A young girl Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), discouraged by her father to leave the comfort of their seclusion. Drawn by the stories of her grandmother Tala (Rachel House) and the playful interactions of the sea itself, she embarks on a journey to find Maui (Johnson), the demi-god who has stolen the heart stone of a god that’s resulting in ecological disaster for Moana’s people.
Yes, there are cutesy animal sidekicks, but like with Frozen they’re playing a fine line between complete anthropomorphism and creating just fun characters, avoiding the “talking sidekick” in favour of physical comedy. Naturally this is something that keen animators excel in, and between a hapless chicken, a silly pig and even the ocean itself the film’s secondary elements provide a full burst of creative joy to the project.
This is Musker and Clement’s first film that’s primarily CGI, and even then there’s a load of hand drawn elements, most notably the roving tattoos on Maui’s muscular chest and back. Serving as a kind of chorus, like the other “sidekicks” we get more opportunity for physical humour without resorting to dialogue.
The film’s environment feels lush, the character models quite beautifully rendered, and the movements on the ocean of both ship and sail feeling very much of a piece, neither purely realistic nor overtly plastic and cartoony. It’s a fine line to pull off, one that Disney animators are constantly engaged with and their excellence shows here. Look to other studio output where this line is blurred too much, where there’s a sense of childishness of imagery, or too much attention to detail with regards to crafting a style. Here it seems they pull it of magically.
As for the spirit of the story, I can’t speak to how it will play to indigenous communities, particularly those in the South Pacific, but it at least gives the sense that they’ve gone the extra mile to be both an accessible, international tale while also doing justice to the stories that have helped shape the people of that region for millennia. Inevitably there will be a softening around the edges of these tales when brought into a mechanism like a Hollywood film, but the sense of respect and admiration for the source and inspiration feels evident, especially in the way the light and imagery is cast. Many voices from the region, from Jemaine Clement to Temuera Morrison and Hawaiian-born Nicole Scherzinger provide their own mark on the film.
Musically the songs are richly constructed while still serving the story. Miranda’s contributions, including sputterings of rap against pure musical theatre, certainly echo his previous celebrated works. The orchestral swells of Mancina, coupled with the more ethnomusical contributions of Opetaia Foa’I, allow for quite a wonderful brew of these many elements, providing something singable yet unique to the Disney canon.
In short, Moana’s got all the ingredients for something truly wonderful, yet inevitable comparisons to the likes of Frozen will have it come up slightly short. It doesn’t quite come together as elegantly, doesn’t quite have the same snap to the dialogue or punch to the songs. Nor does it have Zootopia’s bite, despite overt recontextualization of the very notion of the “princess” movie that’s at the heart of the tale.
Yet one remarkable thing that the film does do is that it spends next to no time on Moana’s gender and her reaction to those around her – unlike Brave, which told another, similar heroic journey, Moana’s simply heroic from the get go, having to prove her worth to herself rather than to a community that thinks less of her off the bat because she’s a girl. It’s refreshing and telling that the film goes in this direction, taking it as read that she’s perfectly capable of saving the world without spending time spelling out the fact that as a daughter rather than son she’s somehow be unfit. It’s a subtle thing, but a very welcome one, allowing Moana’s strengths to shine and subvert expectations without a need to spell out the process.
The voices are great, the songs well done, the visuals stunning and the storyline satisfying and engaging. It may not seem like an immediate classic like Frozen did on first viewing, but Moana’s pretty damn good, a wonderful journey through the tales of a locale both inviting and intoxicating, showing off a bit of fun along the way. Pixar has a lot to catch up, for the Disney side of the animation equation has definitely returned to the head of the pack.