Walt Disney Pictures is currently enjoying the greatest year ever for animated releases. In the history of Hollywood, only three animated movies released prior to 2016 had earned more than a billion dollars in global box office. This year alone, Disney has accomplished this feat with two new films, Zootopia and Finding Dory. Now, as we enter the home stretch of the year, the company that invented the medium has released their third major animated title of the year. How does Moana rank against Disney’s other pair of billion dollar films this year? How about the rest of the Disney library? Read on to find out, as I’m pretty sure you’ll be surprised.
In 2002, Disney traveled to Hawaii to introduce the world to Lilo, a precocious young girl, and Stitch, the universe’s most adorable alien abomination. Quickly recognizing the appeal of these characters, the Parks and Resorts division married Lilo & Stitch to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, which stood as their de facto home until the arrival of Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Kapolei, Hawaii. Lilo & Stitch’s immense popularity informed Disney on the marketing potential of island characters.
Now, 14 years later, Moana arrives to join Lilo and her older sister Nani as an empowered female role model who shatters perceptions as she tries to save the world from a (literally) heartless menace. Her tale is that of an adventurer trapped in the expected life of a chieftain’s daughter. While Moana bristles at the suggestion, she’s a classic Disney Princess labeled with a slightly different name. What’s rare about this particular heroine is that her parents are alive, and that flouting of convention elevates both the conflict of the story and the perception of Moana as a leader. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with the basics. Moana is Disney’s latest celebration of the islander lifestyle. A powerful chieftain named Tui is the kindly ruler of the people of Motonui. The residents live a challenging life ever since a reckless demigod named Maui stole the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti. He performed this selfish but daring act in order to persuade humans to love him. Maui is oddly insecure for a shapeshifting, battle-hardened supernatural warrior.
Maui’s actions have unforeseen repercussions. When that space in Te Fiti’s heart turned black, everything in her domain began to wither and die. The formerly fertile fishing grounds of Motonui have dried up, causing fear that the locals will no longer have the ability to feed their families. Tui suffers through conflicted feelings. He wants to protect his people, but the most viable solution lies beyond the reef. A previous expedition to the dangerous waters past the island led to tragedy, so he’s fearful of the most practical solution to the island’s problem.
At a young age, she protects a sea turtle that has washed ashore. Her actions are almost symmetrical with Piper, the Disney short that accompanied Finding Dory this summer. Unbeknownst to Moana, this innocent act of kindness toward a sea creature triggers a connection to the water itself. Moana has befriended the mother ocean, who selects her as the ambassador of her island.
The water reveals its greatest treasure, the lost heart of Te Fiti, to its chosen representative. From that moment forward, the sea calls to Moana even as her parents pull her back from the water. The instant classic Disney song, “How Far I’ll Go,” reveals the ongoing struggle between Moana’s family and her very nature. It’s textbook Disney storytelling that follows the Elsa playbook from Frozen. Even if others don’t understand, our heroine knows where her future lies.
Eventually, Moana braves the reef and sets out across the ocean. Her sole goal is to find the fabled Maui and bring him back to save her people. Alas, when she discovers the demigod, he’s much more selfish and, well, useless than expected. Impeccably voiced by Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock, Maui is full of bluster but little utility. Think of him as half Aladdin and half The Genie. And I mean the wrong halves.
Moana and Maui embark on a quest to return to the island and challenge the malevolent entity ruining island life for the other inhabitants. A direct return to Motonui proves impossible, forcing our plucky heroine to learn the tricks of navigation. The goals of her adventure change as she learns more about Maui’s past mistakes as well as the history of her people. Moana learns that they were once voyagers led by Wayfinders, and she seeks to become one herself. The symbolism here is unmistakable but poignant. Once the residents of Motonui stopped exploring, they lost their way. Only a literal Wayfinder can show them the path forward.
At its core, the story of Moana is classic Disney at its finest. A young woman finds herself as she selflessly fights on behalf of her people. What modernizes the premise for 2016 is that Moana isn’t a cardboard character. She’s a concerned leader who tosses aside the criticisms of others in her quest to do what’s best for the most people. She never shirks her responsibility nor runs away from it. Instead, she unearths a solution to eliminate the suffering of her people that no one else could achieve. It’s neither senselessly combative nor pacifist, and that maturity in leadership is something appreciable in such challenging times.
To my mind, Moana is the most heroic islander since Pai in 2003’s Whale Rider. While you might not have familiarity with this film, the producers of Moana clearly do. It was an unheralded masterpiece that my staff at Box Office Prophets voted as the Best Overlooked Film of the Year. It also won the Toronto Film Festival Audience Award. Moana is so respectful of the prior story that they cast the aunt from that movie as the grandmother here. And the similarities between the female protagonists in each film are such that once you’ve seen Moana, I warmly encourage you to track down a copy of Whale Rider as well.
With regards to Moana’s ending, I want to tread carefully here to avoid spoilers. What I’ll note is that it shares important similarities with the 1999 classic, The Iron Giant, and 2016’s best non-Disney animated title, Kubo and the Two Strings. A sword, arrow, or magical wand won’t defeat every enemy. Sometimes, the best solutions lie within. This bold decision by Disney to deviate from accepted storytelling norms pays huge dividends in the end.
More movie analysts are discussing the ending of Moana than any other recent animated title, even including Kubo and the Two Strings. That’s a tremendous credit to the Jared Bush screenplay. It also might have ripple effects on future animated stories. And to a larger point, once you’ve seen Moana, you will never look at a mountainscape the same way again.
While Disney took a break from the musical format with Big Hero 6 and Zootopia, Moana hearkens back to Frozen. It’s not just a musical but also has one of the finest pedigrees in recent memory. That’s due to the presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who joined the project right around the time that Hamilton became the most popular Broadway play since Rent.
Miranda’s role in Moana isn’t as significant as the Mary Poppins sequel in which he will star as well as sing. Still, he performs arguably the most important song from the movie, “We Know the Way,” which is the song used in the trailers, too. While it’s unlikely to become the cultural touchstone that “Let It Go” became, it’s an undeniable masterpiece destined to hold an integral place in Disney lore. To a larger point, all of the music in Moana will have your tapping your toes and singing along as best you can. Even the unusual villain that appears midway through the movie gets an instant classic musical accompaniment.
As great as the music in Moana is, however, the true highlight is its visuals. At its core, Moana is a movie about water, and that underlying infrastructure forced Disney animators to up their games. Any illustrator will acknowledge that waters, lava, and the like are the most difficult things to draw…other than hair. Guess what else Moana has in abundance. Yes, it’s a gorgeously coiffed female lead whose hair gets wet on a near-constant basis. That’s because she literally interacts with the sea, which has a pesky habit of petting her on the head when she’s done something right.
Wet hair may not seem like a big deal to you, but in the field of animation, it’s the equivalent of running an Ironman triathlon. I’ll spare you the technical details while encouraging you to read this IndieWire piece. Suffice to say that Moana’s animation is so good that you’ll never realize just how big a challenge that its illustrators faced during the production process. To a larger point, the lush mountains, panoramic island settings, and terrifying Te Fiti encounters all resonate visually. Prior to writing this article, I posted on Facebook that “Moana is the most visually engaging movie that Disney’s ever done. And I include Pixar stuff in that.” And I’m saying that not just as a Disney fan but as someone who has run movie sites for 15+ years. Moana features next-level animation that will quickly become the standard by which all future Disney animated films are measured. It’s that impressive a technical feat.
From a DVC perspective, Moana has already made her presence known at a couple of Disney’s finest resorts. During the sneak peek screening at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, she held a character meet & greet that has since relocated to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. She’s also appearing at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa right now. The expectation is that she will join Lilo & Stitch in maintaining a presence at South Pacific-themed resorts from now on. Since Moana is already a huge box office hit, The Rock is one of the most popular celebrities in the world, and Disney wants to build a long-term relationship with Lin-Manuel Miranda, this particular Disney animation title should have staying power in the parks.
Summarizing, Moana is the kind of animated movie that only Disney can create on a consistent basis. In a year where they’ve already released the impossibly optimistic and joyous Zootopia and the zany celebration of misfits that is Finding Dory, Moana stands apart as their finest offering. I don’t quite love it as much as Lilo & Stitch, but it definitely joins Tangled on my list of the top three Walt Disney Animation Studios releases of the 21st century.