Disney squeezed two films into 2016. Zootopia was a satisfying twisty mystery with a broad and often hilarious animal cast, while Moana offered a very focused ocean quest story with a far smaller roster.
While I certainly liked Moana, admired the decision to explore a culture Disney hasn’t touched before, and had much to celebrate technically, I can’t call it a classic – and nor do I think it will endure. In fact, having just read that directors Clements and Musker (helmsmen of Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules, amongst others) wanted to adapt Terry Pratchett’s Mort but came up against rights acquisition issues, I have to admit wishing they were able to do that instead.
The progressive nature of Moana has been trumpeted enough it almost feels like criticising the piece is tantamount to being racially insensitive, but in general it’s the Polynesian elements that really shine through here. Moana herself is a superb character, likeable, believable, shaped by her background but with plenty of her own personality, too – and not just because of her little pithy comments, either. I loved seeing the animated tattoos, the supernatural manifestations of natural forces and the mythological evils. The evocation of the wonders seen by seafaring tribes was great, and there was some superb music, too – even if my favourite was the rather Bowie-ish ‘Shiny’ number that was decidedly non-Polynesian.
For me, the problem was firmly with Maui, a figure central to Polynesian mythology and a secondary character with more screentime than many Disney protagonists. He absolutely needed to be strange, formidable, a little otherworldly but most importantly, extremely likeable. And for all The Rock’s best efforts and for all the tattoos helped, he just wasn’t likeable. He was slow-witted, self-absorbed, violent, reckless and didn’t really grow or learn even as he warmed to Moana. He was oafish and occasionally murderous, and for all the Moana herself was the real hero of the piece, he was the one with the superpowers, he was the one who drove the plot and he was the one who gained the most from the events of the story – if anything, he was a big patriarchal power symbol around which vaguely feminist themes had to twist themselves. And he was no Genie or even a Wreck-It Ralph, a character it’s fun to see through the whole movie even with their flaws. He was just not interesting or compelling at all.
So with only Moana herself and a very straightforward quest to carry the film, it felt very light in the plot department. Certainly not a bad film, but nowhere near the best of these directors’ output, or that of recent Disney releases.