It’s fair to say that, even if it isn’t completely successful, Moana feels like Disney doing what it should be doing. Which is to say that it’s a beautifully animated musical which pillages some piece of folklore/fairy tale in the service of fun songs and lame, questionable moral platitudes. Frozen had its Austenian charms, but it was severely hampered by bland art direction and some bland tunes; Moana has a lot more to like in both regards.
After a prologue, we open with an idyllic Polynesian tribe, where our titular heroine (Auli’i Cravalho) is being groomed to become its future chief. Her father, however, runs things on a very strict isolationist policy which chafes against Moana’s adventurous spirit. Things eventually turn agriculturally sour on their island, and it turns out that this is due to the lingering effects of demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) having stolen the heart of the Goddess Te Fiti (and not exactly in a metaphorical sense). And, of course, it turns out that Moana is the heroine chosen by the sea to nab Maui and help him deliver back Te Fiti’s heart.
It should go without saying how boilerplate this all is once you strip away the setting. If you’re familiar at all with movies you can easily predict the trajectory of Moana’s plot; there are no surprises here. And, once again we have another kid’s film about a free spirit clashing with the repressive society around them. Important speeches will be given about believing in yourself and following your heart, etc. etc. But narrative and moral depth aren’t typically what makes a Disney film tick – there’s Miyazaki and Pixar for that.
Which gets us to the heart of the matter. Although Disney’s CG humans still sometimes hit me with the uncanny valley, this is a very pretty movie that makes ample use of its tropical setting (frankly I’m kinda surprised that there haven’t been more animated movies closer to the equator). And peppered throughout are some rather impressive set-pieces, from a Mad Max-esque clash with pirates to a journey into a rather bio luminescent underworld. Not to mention Maui’s own living, traditionally animated tattoos, which function kinda like a silent chorus throughout.
Equally important, the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina are all quite fine and show that Disney still knows how to belt out some Broadway style tunes. There’s no standout track like “Kiss The Girl,” but this is still probably the best effort they’ve put out in a long time. I’m glad someone at Disney is trying to reverse the decline and fall of the animated musical (as an aside, I feel that a sizable chunk of my infatuation with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comes from how it’s functioned as a torch-bearer in this regard).
And yet, at the end of it all I felt there was something missing.
Certainly the heroes are nothing special. Moana is every plucky protagonist ever, and while the shapeshifting Maui is certainly more lively, he’s still just the braggadocio-filled jerk with a heart of gold. But this isn’t a problem unique to Moana: many Disney protagonists, from Cinderella down to Simba, have suffered from a case of blandness.
Then it hit me: Moana has no real villain to counteract this. They face various threats along the way (including a giant coconut crab who sings a song suspiciously similar to David Bowie’s “Life On Mars”) but there’s no adversary we’re supposed to hiss at. Which is unfortunate, because they’re usually the most memorable, scenery-chewing character in any given Disney flick. Moana desperately needs a good villain song like this:
So it’s not exactly a second Renaissance, but still quite worthwhile.
(A thought occurred to me during the pre-show ads: while I don’t care if Disney wants to make a billion Star Wars films, the dread of having to withstand the marketing push every Christmas makes me a little uneasy)