Computer animation’s been through a lot, and Disney’s been on the forefront of a lot of it. From its beginnings that resulted in the ugly half 2D half 3D style of Hercules (1997), to abandoning 2D altogether after The Princess and the Frog (2009), Disney has been working towards evolving past traditional animation since the first Disney renaissance of the 90s, and nobody I know has mourned the death of it more than myself. In spite of this, Disney’s Moana looks exactly how Hercules should have, and if any movie is going to have me be okay with ‘animation’ meaning ‘computer-generated’, this is it. I remember being blown away by the water graphics in Super Mario Sunshine in 2002 when the GameCube came out, and let me tell you: It’s now 2016, and water’s never looked better.
Moana stars newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as the titular daughter of Motunui’s chief (but she’s not a princess), who was chosen by the sea to journey across it and end the metaphor for pollution’s wrath that’s finally begun to affect their home island. We are given first the legends of Te Fiti and Maui, told by Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House). One thousand years ago, Maui had taken the heart of Te Fiti, a life-giving stone, and in the process, sent a wave of death across the entire ocean. Not remembering the destiny the ocean gave her when she was a toddler, Moana is preoccupied by her lesser destiny of being the future-chief-of-Motunui, and when the island’s coconut trees start dying, she tries using her political clout to get her people to fish further out beyond the island, where they’ll have more luck. This is to the disdain of her father Tui (Temuera Morrison), who learned early in his life of the dangers of the ocean, until circumstance forces Moana to venture out and save the island’s future.
Circumstance kept me a bit distracted for some of the movie. While Moana sports the story structure that Frozen (2013) lacks, I was put off by the cut and pasted ‘female, hair-flippy, goofball teen with a strong sense of adventure and duty’ characterization of Moana that Disney’s been recycling in the form of Rapunzel and Anna. The story beats of the hero’s journey are present, but I never felt that Moana made any real choices of her own. She was enthusiastic, and wanted desperately to help her island, and was perfectly brave and willing to put her life on the line to do so, but there’s a difference between being gallantly thrust into situations and daringly going headfirst into them.
Moana takes from the best of all eras of Disney films. The humor has the frankness of The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), and the visual beauty matches and maybe exceeds that of Bambi (1942). The animation is brilliant and eye-catching, and boasts one of the most subtle and awesome portrayals of a death that I’ve ever seen. The different environments and colors are vibrant yet never feel gratuitous, with its variety in backdrops making Frozen look downright ugly by comparison. Skin texture looks more realistic in this movie than it does in real life. The musical numbers, while not firing on all cylinders like in The Lion King (1994), are above the par that Tangled (2010) set, and there are two, maybe three excellent songs that I’ll be humming to myself for weeks, one of which is sung by the great Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who adds his usual charm to the movie as Han Solo – I mean Maui, a demigod who must find the strength in being small.
The movie plays out like a better-structured road trip movie for its second act, with Moana going along with whatever the world puts in her way while arguing with the Gaston-esque Maui. While breathtakingly gorgeous, and relentlessly entertaining, I was hoping for the inner turmoil that Simba goes through to give the newest Disney not-a-princess the emotional depth that the world’s always lacked in female-led animation. I kept hoping for this until the beginning of the third act, when Moana finally makes her first huge actual decision, and I realized that this movie was about something different than I thought the whole time: That the circumstances you’re thrust into are not what make you you, but your choices to push through them are. Finally, Moana and Maui and the chicken sidekick were given full emotional characterization – something that the characters from Disney’s ventures into full-on 3D have lacked.
Moana is an amalgam of Disney’s best movies. Taking visual cues from Hercules and Frozen, Moana kicks both to the curb and makes them look like dirt. Though it doesn’t top Disney’s best movies ever, this is a heartwarming story about characters that you genuinely like, and the beginning of Disney’s new renaissance is marked not by Frozen – but by Moana.