With Moana, we’ve reached the end of this Disney Animation Studios blog marathon. I’ve been enjoying it, seeing both movies I remember fondly from my childhood, and movie’s I’ve never seen before. That said, it’s also a relief that it’s over. It’s kind of exhausting watching, researching and writing about 3-5, and occasionally even 6 movies a week. Now that it’s done, I can simply watch movies for a while, or even take a break and catch up on some gaming.
Anyway, Moana released in November of 2016, making it Disney’s second animated movie of the year. It earned $642 million on an estimated $150 million budget, although Disney hasn’t released specific information on the movie’s budget. It’s the studio’s 4th movie in a row to earn more than $600 million worldwide. That alone is an impressive feat. It earned $2.6 million on the Tuesday paid previews, which is the highest in history for a non-Pixar animated movie, and it earned $15.5 million on opening night, a record for both Disney Animation Studios and for any movie in history to be released pre-Thanksgiving weekend (I mean thanksgiving in the United States – Canadian Thanksgiving is in October, and the holiday isn’t that big of a thing outside of North America).
Moana earned a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the second highest rating in the company’s history (second to Zootopia). Two Disney movies in a row receiving that high of a score, even though I agree they are good movies, feels a bit suspicious to me. It received an Academy Award nomination for both Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, but lost to Zootopia and La La Land respectively. And the movie isn’t without its criticisms or controversies, the main one is that the movie completely ignores the mythical Maui’s female companion, Hina.
The movie is co-directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, of The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog fame. Although they are Disney Animation Studio veterans, this is their first fully CGI movie. Moana clearly benefits from that, but we’ll talk about it later. They first planned an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Mort, but couldn’t acquire the rights. When it didn’t work out, they pitched a couple movie ideas in 2011, one based on Polynesian culture and mythology. It talked about the myth of Maui.
In 2012, John Lasseter encouraged them to go on research trips for the project. Their research trip helped them land on a story that took place about 2,000 years ago, based on the islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. During its 5 year production they hired consultants from Polynesian groups to help with the story’s accuracy and sensitivity. They even hired a teenaged Hawaiian, Auli’i Cravalho, to portray the main character in her debut role after a large auditioning campaign.
Funny enough, by the time they hired Cravalho, they finished the character’s design, and Moana and her voice actress look very much alike. The directors insist that it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s fate?
Moana takes place in the Pacific Islands, starring Polynesians, who today have minority populations in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. The estimation is that the people group migrated to the Pacific around 3,000 years ago, and sailed from island to island every generation or so. The title character, Moana, is the daughter of the island chief. Her tribe’s been on the same island for a number of generations, afraid to travel beyond the reef because of the violent waters.
Even as a toddler, Moana was fascinated by the ocean and felt a strong desire to explore it. Her father forbade it and tried to raise her as the same kind of chief he is, her being his only child. Her grandmother, who is often viewed as the island crazy person, instead teaches Moana about their tribe’s past as explorers and encourages her to follow her heart. When the island’s food supply starts to disappear, like coconuts rotting on the inside and the fish no longer swimming anywhere near the island, Moana is forced to leave the island to save her people. She sneaks out at night when her father is distracted by his dying mother.
From there, Moana turns into a pure adventure movie. I won’t get too deep into the mythology because part of the fun is letting the movie explain it. To sum it up, she needs to bring a magical rock back to some sort of land goddess to calm the waves a bit and bring life back to the ocean. She needs the help of Maui, a demigod who stole the magic rock, so she starts tracking him down.
Moana is a fantastic lead character. She’s an intelligent natural leader who is very driven to help her people. At the same time, she spends the first act split between staying on the island and exploring the ocean. What makes it worse is that her father does have good reasons to be afraid of the ocean, but at the same time, the ocean seems sentient. It seemed to choose her … somehow. My main complaint about the movie is that it doesn’t really explain what’s going on with the ocean.
Another complaint of mine is that Moana doesn’t really go through that much of a character arc. Sure, she learns a lot about sailing during her journey, and there are a couple moments where she’s either afraid or discouraged, but she’s still determined to help her people. She starts the movie as a great leader even in her teenaged years, she’s resourceful and she doesn’t like to back down. That doesn’t really change much. Her main character arc is just learning how to do things better. This is a minor complaint, but it’s still worth noting. A bit more of a hero’s journey where she’s more resistant to her call to adventure would have been a bit more intriguing.
When Moana finds Maui, he’s initially very hesitant to help her, seeing the rock as a curse more than anything else. He’s afraid of the giant lava monster guarding the island, and he finds Moana’s persistence annoying. He slowly learns to take some responsibility for his actions, and he also learns to respect Moana more. In that sense he’s the one who goes through an actual character arc. He’s voiced by none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and his performance is comparable to Robin Williams in Aladdin. He doesn’t go for comedy nearly as much mind you, and he’s better at letting dramatic moments happen, but he’s clearly having fun with the role.
Moana and Maui make a good team in the end. Their initial interactions are amusing, like how Maui keeps trying to ditch her, only for Moana to keep coming back. Sometimes it’s getting out of a cave he tried to lock her in, and sometimes it’s the sentient ocean placing her back onto the boat, or even putting him back on when he tries to jump off. They start to grow as friends and as partners after a few dangerous encounters. There’s a crab I’ll talk about more, and this army of boat riding coconuts in what feels like a PG love letter to Mad Max: Road Fury. They start to bond at about the time when Maui gets his hook back – a hook he needs to use his shapeshifting powers.
Apart from them and Moana’s family back at the island, there’s really only one character worth mentioning. That’s Tamatoa, a giant crab who’s a treasure hoarder. He’s the closest thing this movie has to a villain, and yet he’s only got one real scene. Whether you like him or not very much depends on what you think of his song. It’s a groovy number where he talks about how much he loves shiny things, and it feels like nothing else in the movie.
I won’t talk about how the movie ends, but I will post a video clip here. If you don’t want the ending spoiled, don’t watch this clip. That said, I’m putting it here because I stumbled on this clip, and it’s what convinced me to watch this movie in the first place. I kind of wanted to anyway, but this is what put me over the edge.
It’s a fantastic moment that shows Moana’s intelligence and empathy. It doesn’t hurt that the song is short, yet dramatically effective.
Other songs in the movie include “How Far I’ll Go”, Moana’s anthem song and the one that received the Academy Award nomination. It’s Moana’s personal call to adventure, and it’s fun and upbeat. “Where You Are” sounds like a pacific folk song that celebrates the island life. “We Know The Way”, half sung in Polynesian languages and half sung in English, is a call to adventure sung by Moana’s ancestors when she learns about the tribe’s history. It’s a catchy song that’s also fun and upbeat. “You’re Welcome”, Maui’s song, is Johnson having fun the same way that Robin Williams did in “Friend Like Me”. He doesn’t have the greatest singing voice, but he’s passable and the fun and passion he puts into it makes it very entertaining.
The CGI animation in the movie, from a technical standpoint, is the best Disney movie so far. While utilizing pretty much all the innovations in the last few years, it also greatly expands what the animators can do with the water. It moves in realistic ways, and you can partly see through it thanks to distortion effects and the limited visual range. Characters look wet when they should, and it even affects how the hair physics work. Like Bolt and Tangled, there are still hints of hand-drawn animation in the film, making this a bit of a reverse hybrid. The flag images and Maui’s moving tattoos are both drawn by hand and scanned into the 3d environment.
Of all the Disney movies since the Renaissance period, this is the most Renaissance-like movie. The music enhances the movie’s overall mood, both with the soundtrack and the songs. It’s a pure adventure movie. And it’s also a really good movie. I’d say it’s easily the better of the two 2016 Disney movies, and that it was more deserving of the Best Animated Feature award than Zootopia was.
That said, it’s not without its flaws. Moana doesn’t go through as much of an arc as I would have liked. It doesn’t explain what’s going on with the Ocean, which I’m sure could have a fascinating explanation. While I enjoy the “Shiny” song, it doesn’t feel like anything else in the movie. The “Shiny” singer is also the closest thing this movie has to a villain, even though he’s barely in it. That seems to be a common thread with Disney movies lately. The great villains of the past don’t seem to be a thing anymore. I hope they return sometime soon. But I do highly recommend Moana regardless.
I’ve compiled a list of all 56 of the Disney Animation Studios movies in order of personal preference, and Moana barely missed out on the top 10. I’ll be posting that list sometime in the next few weeks, but I might write up a couple other lists first. There will likely be a favourite Disney songs list and a favourite Disney villains list. There may also be a list of all the Disney Princesses, from worst to best, trying to balance it out between objective reasoning and personal taste. I would also include unofficial princesses in that list, like Moana (the daughter of a Chief) and Princess Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron.