This July I did something kind of out of character: I saw a Pixar movie (Finding Dory) in the theaters. Don’t have some huge reason for this but it was a slow week, the damn thing was on track to become the highest grossing movie of the year, and I wanted to be “in” on the conversation. Since then I decided that 2016 was maybe the year to change things up and try to keep up with the major animated movies of the for once, in part because these was starting to look like a banner year for animation and in part because I’m just generally trying to be a little more open minded about what I see in general recently. I don’t know that I’m going to keep on doing this in 2017, but it’s mostly been fun this year and may well result in this being the first year where I have an actual informed opinion about the Oscar for best Animated Feature for once. As such I also went to see Kubo and the Two Strings and caught up with Zootopia and the culminations seems to have happened this week when I went to see the latest Disney sensation Moana, which for all intents and purposes seems to be their spiritual follow-up to their 2013 blockbuster Frozen even if it takes place in a decidedly different environment.
The film is set in a mythical Polynesia, specifically a fictional island called Motunui which has been isolated for thousands of years by an ingrained taboo about sailing past the coral reef that surrounds the island. There we’re introduced to a girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the heir apparent to the island’s chiefdom. Moana grew up listening to her grandmother (Rachel House) telling stories about how the island was isolated because eons ago a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a magical gem from the Earth goddess and unleashed a lava demon named Te Kā who took over all the other islands. Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison) thinks these are all just fairy stories but insists that no one leave the island just the same. Moana however, has long yearned to go out to the sea and after an encounter with some ocean magic as a young child has long felt she had been chosen for some great task away from the island and thinks that her destiny calls after a seemingly magical petulance seems to set in on the island. Taking a leap of fate she sails out to find Maui and force him to return the magical gem to where it belongs and bring order to the island universe.
Let’s talk about Frozen for a second. That was a movie that the world seemed to go nuts for back in 2013. It’s one of the ten highest grossing movies of all time worldwide, but its impact was felt in an even greater way than its box office tally would suggest. Its songs became major box office presences, it inspired a billion think pieces, and by all accounts kids watched it like crazy. It did not, however, become a major critical Cause célèbre like some of the better Pixar movies have, and there’s a reason for that: the movie is kind of flawed. When I finally caught up with the movie I found it intriguing in its first third or so but thought it pretty clearly lost its way in its second half. It wasted a lot of time with that stupid snowman, it had kind of a predictable love triangle, the rules of the magic in it were not well defined, and it ended with this dumb deus ex machine where sisterhood triumphed over adversity. That said, I totally get why it was a success. It did some kind of bold stuff (relatively speaking) in that first third and it was well executed and ambitious in a way that kids movies haven’t been recently. It was this big bombastic thing that seemed to be triumphantly screaming “Disney is back bitches!” and I couldn’t blame the public for being excited for that.
Moana is clearly trying to pick up on the momentum from that project and build on its strengths. The film is another post-third-wave-feminism princess movie that’s very interested in molding a traditional Disney fairy tale story in a way that addresses the various criticisms that were leveled at the studio’s previous output. As such out protagonist, while still technically a princess I suppose, rejects that label and insists she’s simply the daughter of the chief and it’s heavily emphasized that this means she will in fact inherit that office and all the powers and responsibilities involved and it’s never commented upon that she will be a woman in that role. Unlike Frozen, however, this movie is less interested in messing with the basic story formula. That movie’s introduction of sister protagonists who are sort of forced onto opposite sides of a conflict was a neat little twist on what you’d expect from a Disney narrative while Moana opts for more of a traditional heroe’s journey adventure kind of thing. It actually reminded me a lot of this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings in that regard as both basically have their heroes stuck on their own and forced to pick up sidekicks and go on fetch quests. Moana lacks that film’s neat stop motion animation and general samurai coolness, but it is a little more organic in the way its quest plays out and is better at hiding how episodic it is at times.
The film also followed Frozen’s lead in taking the form of a full musical like the movies of the Disney Renaissance era. Frozen’s music was written by the musical team behind Broadway’s “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Morman” and Moana’s music was written by (among others) Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man who’s Broadway exploits have become so famous in the last year that even I’ve heard of him. The soundtrack that he and composer Mark Mancina have come up with is, like a lot of things in Moana, obviously impressive while also feeling a bit calculated and formulaic. There isn’t really a vocal showstopper here on a par with “Let it Go,” and the closest they come is a song called “How Far I’ll Go,” a show-tune that dutifully follows the “I Wish” formula of songs like “Part of Their World” without deviation and doesn’t really add a lot to the mix. A lot of the rest of the music kind of sounds like it was recycled from The Lion King except with the African chants replaced with Polynesian chants… again all of this is well done and doesn’t really detract to much form the movie but I feel like it could have been done more creatively. The numbers that really impressed were some of the film’s poppier and more comedic ones including a really amusing bit of Broadway lyricism called “You’re Welcome” performed by The Rock himself with amazing exuberance. The other standout is a sweet glam rock song called “Shiny” performed by a giant crab voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement which has such a good pop hook that you don’t even notice that the scene it’s in doesn’t advance the story much and is basically filling for time.
So how does the film compare to the other animated films of 2016? Well, I’ve already pointed out some of its similarities to Kubo and the Two Strings, which is in many ways less well written and structured than Moana but its milieu and ethos still probably appealed more to me. Of the four movies that one is the most stylish and just generally the coolest and the one that felt the least need to throw in dumb comic relief for the kids. Zootopia by contrast is probably the most original of the four and also the smartest, or at least the most relevant. You certainly can’t accuse Disney of having coasted on a formula with that one, but out of the four it’s also probably the most prone to dumb comic relief and silliness. There’s some cringe inducing stuff in that movie (Shakira, I’m looking at you) which does kind of make it hard for me to completely get behind it. Of the four my favorite might actually be Finding Dory, which is certainly a movie that isn’t devoid of questionable comedy and structural contrivances, but more than any of the others it just felt like a real movie with some original ideas and resonant characters.
As for Moana, it certainly has a lot going for it. The environmental animation is beautiful, especially in an early scene where some of the magic allows the water to be sort of parted in an interesting way as fish swim around it like the walls of an aquarium. The movie also manages to be pretty witty and energetic. There are a couple of dumb kiddie movie jokes here and there, but they’re not too bad for the most part, there’s nothing as consistently annoying as the snowman from Frozen anyway. I guess you could say that the movie does almost everything right and have made a very entertaining movie that will certainly impress its target audience, but it’s going to have to start to take a few more chances if it ever wants to reach the heights that Pixar reached in the late 2000s. I used to think that Pixar had picked up where Disney had left off back in the 90s but I’ve come to realize that what Pixar did and continues to do is actually pretty fundamentally different than what Disney has always been doing. Disney is a company of entertainers and showmen while Pixar is a company of storytellers and filmmakers. I tend to prefer the later but there’s certainly something to be said for a movie that taps into that old Hollywood moxie and gives the audience a fun journey to go on.