Last year Pixar released two films, one of which was far superior to the other, perhaps because it wasn't dogged by production hiccups and a complete rewrite (i.e., Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, respectively). Likewise, earlier this year Disney released Zootopia, an imaginative and thoughtful allegory about race relations in the United States, one that doesn't hold up terribly well to scrutiny if you think too hard, but is nevertheless one of the studio's better films in the last five years.
Now we have Moana, which doesn't cover nearly as much new ground as its predecessor nor does it give us much of anything in the way of new ideas for animation, much less Disney overall. It's firmly in the comfort zone of the Disney Animated Classics that began the so-called Disney renaissance in the late 1980s: it's about a brash young woman who has a firm place in society but wants something different for herself than what is expected of her. She goes on a journey to discover her true potential, learning that the world can be a scary place but that she can handle herself in it, not without the assistance and encouragement of her friends and family.
That doesn't make Moana a bad movie. By anyone's standards, Moana is one of Disney's best-executed efforts in recent memory. It's just familiar, is all. Very familiar. Frozen pushed the boundaries of what is expected of a Disney princess movie, handily passing the Bechdel test (so does Moana) and giving us some truly terrific songs along the way. Moana at least features an entirely nonwhite cast of characters, which isn't a first for Disney but then again, we've never gotten a story about Polynesia before. But like an old house that's hosted many generations of the same family, this story has good bones, a solid foundation. In broad strokes there are little to no surprises. It's in the finer details that Moana excels.
It is telling that the primary credited directors on the film are John Musker and Ron Clements, Disney veterans who brought us The Little Mermaid—which heralded the Disney renaissance—along with Aladdin and Hercules, whose eponymous protagonist is a chief progenitor of Moana's demigod, Maui. Their old-school sensibility informs the narrative structure of the film through and through, to both positive and negative effect. Formulas are formulaic because they work. In fact, Moana's simple storyline is refreshing in a time when big-budget Hollywood movies seem to guarantee a needlessly convoluted and branching plot. But I'd wager that the co-directors, Don Hall and Chris Williams (Big Hero 6, Winnie the Pooh, Bolt) lend the film its kookier, more interesting qualities.
Before I get any further, I'll mention that the plot revolves around Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), the teenage chieftain-to-be of a Polynesian fishing island. Her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), is a cautious man who instructs his daughter to love where she lives and to forget about venturing out to the great big ocean that she seems to love so much. Conversely, her wacky grandmother, Gramma Tala (Rachel House), tells Moana to trust the "voice inside," and to achieve her dream of traveling the seas and fulfill her ancestral destiny as a voyager. Moana's island starts to die for mysterious reasons, so she leaves to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), with whom she will return a magical stone to its rightful place to restore life to the world.
As is often the case, Johnson's performance in Moana is one of its greatest strengths. He channels his room-filling charisma into an egotistical blowhard who ravenously craves the praise of the people around him. To enlist his help, Moana preys on Maui's hunger to be regarded as a hero, a status from which he has fallen for stealing the aforementioned magical stone, ostensibly for his own glory. The screenplay, credited only to Jared Bush but with a story conceived by the four directors, among others, works in tandem with Johnson's performance to give Maui layers of characterization that are downright rare in a children's animated feature. His relationship with Moana is given room to breathe and transform over the course of the film, taking her character to places that the script otherwise does not allow her. Despite the film's title and marketing, Maui is certainly the protagonist of the story; in comparison, Moana is a bit flat. Unfortunately, once Maui enters the story, he ends up being the most interesting thing on screen, effectively stealing the film out from under the main character.
The film pulls a funny bait-and-switch early on: Moana has an adorable pet pig that more or less behaves like a hyper-intelligent dog, but when she embarks on her journey, she ends up having to take care of Heihei (Alan Tudyk), a rooster that you might call stupid if it did anything but just behave like a dumb animal. Despite the casting of Tudyk as Heihei's voice actor, the bird doesn't speak or do much of anything. It constantly endangers itself by walking aimlessly into the ocean, off cliffs or into walls, pecking at whatever happens to be nearby. Moana and Maui watch over the chicken for no reason other than basic human decency, so Heihei ends up existing merely for the purpose of physical comedy, but I'll be damned if he wasn't one of the funniest creations in the film. It's this sort of weird, awkward-comedy invention for which I suspect the younger generation of directors is responsible. More in line with the Musker-Clements school of filmmaking is the ocean itself, which is silently anthropomorphized in a fashion that recalls the Magic Carpet from Aladdin. But because it's the friggin' ocean, the film devolves to more than a few instances of deus ex aqua: suffice it to say that without the help of that omnipresent body of water, Moana may not have a happy ending.
One of the film's more disappointing features is the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda, king of Broadway, Pulitzer Prize-winner and MacArthur Genius Grant-haver, co-wrote the original songs in the film with Opetaia Foa'i and composer Mark Mancina. The bummer is that the songs are just not that memorable. Sure, there are moments when a certain cadence or clever phrasing faintly recalls Miranda's brilliant contributions to the stage, but the strongest song, "You're Welcome," is barely on par with even the most routine, functional tune in Hamilton. And yeah, Miranda is only a co-writer, so we can't lay the music's shortcomings entirely at his feet, but we've come to expect better from the man at this point. Chalk it up to a busy schedule, I suppose.
There are moments of Moana that are visually breathtaking, even if the narrative context is a bit too reminiscent of The Lion King to ignore ("Remember who you are," and so on). I was particularly reminded of the exhilarating freedom you get while sailing in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, a sentiment Moana achieves through gorgeous lighting, photorealistic water and characteristically terrific sound design. It is an absolutely rock-solid film that is hard to fault in any major way. It's also proof that for every half-step Disney takes towards innovation, the studio's still got the other foot stubbornly planted in the past.