Out of all the major studios, Disney have the most problematic past by a considerable margin. It is refreshing that Walt Disney Animation’s resurgence over the past few years, where they have repeatedly threatened to eclipse Pixar as the Mouse House’s premier animation studio, has been successful by righting many of the wrongs in their back catalogue. The racial stereotypes that characterised many of Disney’s old animation efforts have been effectively disowned by the studio with the release of films including anti-racism parable Zootopia (inexplicably retitled Zootropolis here in the UK) and introducing ethnically diverse central characters in films including The Princess and the Frog.
Most impressively, this doesn’t feel like shameless pandering- the strength of the stories speak for themselves, with no need to tie their racially diverse characters into a socio-political subtext designed solely to generate a million think pieces from liberal journalists. Moana is another entry into this canon, with characters who don’t fit the typical fairy tale mode and a story that refuses to acknowledge any issues of race- whilst still sensitively portraying another culture’s rich folklore. It also goes one step further in addressing Disney’s “princess problem”, by introducing a titular character who is never involved in any romantic entanglements and doesn’t fit the tired “blonde hair, blue eyes” look of countless Disney leads.
Yet despite the clear positives, from diversity that doesn’t feel pandering and a rich empowerment tale that further updates the fairytale formula after the feminist revisionism of Frozen, Moana still feels mightily disappointing. I know that I’m in the minority here, but Moana sounds like a better film on paper that it actually is in action; a movie with themes and characterisations I inherently like, yet burdened by a typical “hero’s quest” narrative that renders it instantly forgettable. Strip away the change of scenery and the characters who don’t fit the traditional Disney mould and Moana is arguably the most formulaic effort of the studio’s latest renaissance, as well as a considerable step down from the aforementioned Zootopia earlier this year.
There has clearly been a high amount of love and care placed into the production. The animation is some of the finest Disney has ever produced, with CG water and sand that looks photo realistic; when Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) washes up on the island where Maui (Dwayne Johnson in full “comic relief” mode) resides, a brief shot of her with sand in her hair manages to blur the lines between animation and photo realism in a manner that is quietly masterful. However, director John Lasseter (head honcho at Pixar and Disney Animation) has always said that if you are noticing the animation details above anything else, then that is a sign the story isn’t working. I’m afraid to say that he’s right; this is a considerable technical achievement that breaks so little ground narratively it feels overwhelmingly ordinary. Never good, never bad and never boring- just utterly normal and somewhat predictable from beginning to end.
It also suffers in comparison to Disney’s previous animated film, Frozen. Although hated by parents the world over due to children watching it and listening to the soundtrack on a constant rotation, the 2013 animation is something of a landmark for Disney; a subversion of classic princess tropes that had positive feminist themes, as well as notable LGBT allegories and an emotional depth due to its coded exploration of a character clearly suffering from depression. It offered food for thought for the adults, as well as heart, charm and plenty of catchy songs.
Moana’s heart is clearly in the right place, but it doesn’t appear to have anything to offer beneath the surface- and certainly nothing to keep older viewers as entertained as younger ones on repeated viewings. Although written by Tony Award winning star Lin Manuel Miranda, the songs on the soundtrack often feel generic, never hitting any distinctive notes that kept them lodging in my brain in the same way the Frozen soundtrack did. The movie is going out of its way to try to replicate the success of Let it Go- and ends up falling short on the musical front.
Moana is charming but inconsequential- a landmark film in terms of Disney’s onscreen representation of female leads, but a minor footnote when it comes down to the ordinary narrative.