How Disney uprooted & repurposed their own traditions to craft their most creative film to date.
“Legend tells of a hero who will journey to find the demi-god Maui – and, together, they will save us all.”
The folk at Disney seem to know what they’re doing. For almost eighty years they’ve churned out animated classic, after animated classic. From Snow White, to The Jungle Book, to The Little Mermaid, to The Lion King to the absurdly popular global phenomenon known as Frozen – the list goes on and on. The company has had an unparalleled influence on pop culture. What sets Walt Disney Animation apart from more recent phenomenons like Lucasfilm & Marvel is their longevity. Sure, they’ve had their ups and downs – but they’ve always bounced back by adapting and evolving to fit the times.
While Frozen may end up being the most popular of the studio’s latest wave CG-animated films, Moana is a far superior example of their evolution. It draws on everything audiences have come to love about Disney movies – a powerful coming-of-age tale full of wit and wonder, the bond between a ‘princess’ and her faithful sidekick, stunning animation bathed in beautiful colours, and an unfathomably catchy soundtrack that’ll put a smile on your face and a song in your heart. And yet, it also serves a wonderful showcase of how blockbuster cinema has changed since 1937.
In an industry dominated by male protagonists, Disney has never shied away from constructing stories around women. However, it wasn’t until the late eighties/nineties that these women started to feel like legitimate heroines. Movies like The Little Mermaid & Mulan put a new twist on the classic Disney princess tale, showing them off to be very capable in action/adventure scenarios. The likes of Tangled & Frozen have since pushed the boundaries of the role even further by removing their heroines’ dependency on the traditional ‘leading man’. Their female leads have grown increasingly well-rounded with every passing decade – and Moana may just be their finest creation to date.
“I am Moana of Motunui. You *will* board my boat and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”
Brought to life by the magnificent vocal talents of Auli’i Cravalho, Moana feels like the everywoman. Where Frozen‘s Elsa was defined by her uncontrollable abilities and royal heritage, Moana’s memorable qualities all stem from her personality. She’s inquisitive, kind and incredibly driven. Her quest doesn’t spark from rebellion or rage, but rather her curiosity, and desire to help the ones she loves. That she’s the chief’s daughter is merely an afterthought. He’s far more representative of an overprotective father anyway – one who’s fearful of what the world might do to his only child. That’s something you don’t have to be a king or a chief to relate to if you’re a parent.
She’s also a bit of a dork. Comedy, much like action, is a genre that’s been dominated by men for too long. Watching Moana quip, stumble and pratfall her way through various slapstick scenarios felt surprisingly refreshing. Even more importantly, it made her feel like one of us. People like watching reflections of themselves on the big screen, and making mistakes is one of the most human things one can do. Our heroine encounters a variety of obstacles during her adventure – and she doesn’t always overcome them first time. The way she works on her weaknesses is a simple (yet effective) form of character development – and makes her subsequent victories feel all the more rewarding.
In an industry so quick to tear down any heroine for being ‘a Mary Sue’ or ‘a damsel’, Moana impressively falls into neither category. The fact the movie feels compelled to point out her empowerment on multiple occasions is a little on-the-nose. I’d personally love to get to a point where having a strong, female lead is the norm – and filmmakers treating them like it is is the first step to achieving that. Regardless of that fact, there’s no denying Disney did an outstanding job with their protagonist here, ensuring she came across as relatable, compelling, and – above all else – immensely likeable.
“First, we’ve gotta go through a whole ocean of bad.”
For directors Ron Clements & John Musker, Moana represents an evolution of sorts as well. It feels like the end of a journey for the prolific directing duo – one that, like the House of Mouse, has had its fair share of highs and lows. After playing a vital role in the studio’s resurgence in the early 90’s with back-to-back hits in The Little Mermaid & Aladdin, they’ve arguably struggled to reach top form since. I personally adored 1997’s Hercules for what it was, but not everyone felt that way. After that they sadly saw their passion project Treasure Planet turn into a high profile box office flop, and while The Princess & The Frog did something to repair their reputation, it’s hardly had a lasting legacy since its release seven years ago.
Then along came Moana. Clements & Musker’s first fully CG-animated feature smashed their opening weekend box office record, pulling in $56.6M domestically. Far more importantly, it’s also their most complete work to date. Playing out like a greatest hits record, the film takes plenty of inspiration from their back catalogue. An obvious comparison can be made with The Little Mermaid, as both films feature heroines in an aquatic setting who yearn for something more. However, Moana‘s hero’s journey (and song) bears a striking resemblance to Hercules‘ (s/o to the Michael Bolton classic, “Go The Distance”).
Furthermore, the swashbuckling sense of adventure that made Treasure Planet so ripe with potential has been translated back into an oceanic environment here. The film’s riotous Fury Road sequence is some of the best cinema I’ve seen all year. Finally, it’d be a shame not to mention Moana‘s most endearing little throwback: Dwayne Johnson’s Maui, who retains all the boundless energy, wit and charisma that made Robin Williams’ Genie so iconic in Aladdin – without ever feeling like a parody or a pale imitation.
“It’s actually: ‘Maui, Shapeshifter, Demi-God of the Wind & Sea, *Hero of Men*’. I interrupted. From the top!”
Maui is the film’s other huge success. In the hands of another studio, Moana might’ve actually been Maui – a superheroic tale of demi-gods and redemption led by global superstar Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Instead, Disney switched things up a little, using the character sparingly for maximum effect. Indeed, he doesn’t make a meaningful appearance until the beginning of the second act! But when he is onscreen, you savour every minute of it. While Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i & Mark Mancina’s soundtrack is full of gems, The Rock’s charming rendition of “You’re Welcome” stands tall as the best of the bunch.
By casting Johnson as the film’s deuteragonist, the studio retained his immense star power to help sell the film, while also carving out their most memorable sidekick/mentor role since the Genie. Father-daughter bonds are surprisingly rare in the world of Disney movies. They tend to favour an exclusively male relationship (see The Lion King, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Treasure Planet). Moana & Maui rank up there with the best of them, thanks, primarily, to Cravalho & The Rock’s phenomenal chemistry.
Moana does such a wonderful job at making the most out of the Disney formula while updating it for a new generation, it’s almost a bit of a shame to see it mocking itself at times. Meta humour can work a treat in animation (see: The Lego Movie), but while the jokes earn a few laughs here, they almost undermine the film’s success, drawing attention to the clichés it had repurposed so creatively. Fortunately, it’s only a minor flaw in an otherwise spotless effort. Moana is a staggering reminder that Disney will probably still be making movies this great for another eighty years to come.