By all rights, Disney has been kicking sister company Pixar’s butt on the animated film front for the last five or six years. This is due to two unrelated events: Former Pixar chief and current Disney chief John Lasseter brought The Process with him from Pixar, where instead of putting one or two people in charge of the story, a group of writers will work on the story until they have ironed out any potential kinks. At the same time, Pixar hit a point in their release schedule where they were working almost exclusively on sequels (with only one of the non-sequels, 2015’s “Inside Out,” good enough to stand alongside Pixar’s best work). This left Pixar vulnerable, and while Pixar was by no means out, they were down, and Disney seized the opportunity. In the last four years, Disney and Pixar have each won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature, though if you ask us, “Wreck-It Ralph” was robbed at arrow point by “Brave” in 2012, and the real tally should be 3-1 in Disney’s favor.
This brings us to “Moana,” coming out in a year where Disney and its many subdivisions have completely conquered the box office. (They own the top four spots on the worldwide box office rankings, with the recently released “Doctor Strange” at #9 and climbing, and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” still waiting in the wings.) One wonders if releasing three animated films in one year proved to be a strain on the brain trust, because The Process let “Moana” down. It’s fun, and it’s beautifully rendered, but it is a far cry from “Zootopia” in terms of story, a farther cry from “Frozen” in terms of musical numbers, and it pales in comparison to both in terms of emotional weight.
From birth, South Pacific native Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) was drawn to the sea, and the sea was drawn to her, as it has chosen her to be the one to restore the heart of Te Fiti, a gem which brings life to the islands of the region. The gem was stolen by demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who intended to give it to the humans so they could create life of their own, but both Maui and the gem were lost at sea shortly after he stole it, and death and disease have slowly crept to every island in the aftermath. Moana’s island is now feeling the brunt of this curse, and despite being warned by her father never to sail past the reefs of her island, newly minted chief Moana (but still young, possibly as young as Ariel, we don’t really know) steals off with a catamaran and the gem in order to find Maui. Once she finds him, he’s thrilled…to finally have a way to escape the island he’s been trapped on for a thousand years.
Does it seem strange to anyone else that two of the three animated films that Disney released this year feature wall-eyed birds? First it was Becky in “Finding Dory,” and now it’s Heihei the idiot chicken (voiced by a new Disney regular that we love). That’s a mighty strange coincidence, along the lines of the story Kevin Smith liked to tell about former Warner Bros. producer Jon Peters insisting that the Superman script he wrote in the ‘90s included a giant spider, and a few years later, the Peters-produced “Wild Wild West” featured a giant spider. Huh.
The songs could have carried this movie a lot farther, but despite the input from the white-hot Lin-Manuel Miranda, the tunes have nothing on “Frozen,” “Tangled” or even “The Princess and the Frog.” There are two standout numbers, though, neither of them sung by Moana. The first is “You’re Welcome,” where Maui talks about his awesomeness, and the other is “Shiny,” a gloriously animated sequence (think the technicolor nightmare sequence in “Dumbo,” but less terrifying) where Maui tries to get his magic fish hook back from a giant crab, sung by the crab (Jemaine Clement, holler).
There are some great messages in “Moana,” but they were handled in such a way that the film itself seems to overlook them. Maui’s selfish acts in the name of adulation will resonate with parents but will probably sail over kids’ heads, and the bit about the importance of not letting a tragic event in your life define who you are is something that both children and adults could stand to learn. Unfortunately, it comes so late in the game that the potential impact of that scene is diminished.
“Moana” is a gorgeous and brave film in many ways, but that lack of emotional punch prevents it from getting to third gear. Think of it as Disney’s equivalent to “Cars”: an entertaining but average film that doesn’t measure up to its predecessors.