The Walt Disney Animation Studios built its storytelling legacy upon the rewriting of traditional fairy-tales; re-imagining folk stories as appealing works of art drenched in color and magic. It comes as a rather pleasant turn of events, then, that the company’s current period – which started in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog and has been dubbed the Second Disney Renaissance thanks to the high quality of the flicks being produced – has had a good share of completely original scripts. A characteristic that was once almost exclusively reserved to the revered The Lion King has come to the forefront once more with movies such as Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and Moana showing that Disney is perfectly capable of releasing animated features powered by stories that have not been put onto paper anywhere else.
Even though Moana shares that link of originality with those other Disney classics, their similarities stop right there. The Lion King, Wreck-It Ralph, and Zootopia, more than being written from scratch, were remarkable because they walked away from the company’s traditional mold: although they did carry many of Disney’s signature traits, the tales they told were not enchanted fables. Moana, meanwhile, runs the other way: it is a deliberate attempt by the studio to write their own fairy-tale and to create, through their own hands, the kind of magic they used to merely borrow from European narratives.
In a way, such a decision may lead to some quite troubled waters. After all, Moana runs the risk of coming off as a cookie-cutter production; one that, instead of subverting the expectations of its audience, chooses to dance to the sound of its music. On the other hand, though, if its directors become aware of the rock they are about to sail this vessel into, then the movie may steer towards a brighter horizon, for the attempts to make it truly unique despite its mundane spirit may pay off considerably. And that is precisely why Moana is so interesting: because through its running time it is constantly finding a way to juggle both its desire to be original and the fact it is locked into the pattern of a traditional fairy-tale.
The movie starts with the telling of a legend of how the demigod Maui stole the mystical heart of the goddess Te Fiti, an item that had the power to create life. Due to this impulsive act, darkness starts to slowly spread through the islands of the Polynesia, scaring animals away and draining life off the vegetation. Moana is the daughter of the chief of one of those islands, and nearly 1,000 years after Maui’s theft, the curse reaches her home, threatening the life of her people. Chosen by the ocean to be the one to recover the mystical heart of Te Fiti, find and convince the stubborn Maui to help her, and restore peace to the region, Moana must face both the ordeals the journey will throw her way and the resistance of her father to find her true self and mature.
Given the premise, it is easy to see why Moana may feel like a movie one has already seen way too many times. The conflict between Moana and her father, who refuses to let her sail past the reefs and that thinks staying on the island is the best course of action, serves as the trampoline that launches her towards a journey in which she must move out from under his wings and discover who she is. Moreover, the fact the movie is a musical (with thoroughly excellent songs crafted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway hit Hamilton) in which a great deal of plot exposition and character development is done through singing makes it a close sibling to many other features that are a part of the Disney canon.
However, despite that proximity, Moana ultimately stands out. It does not completely get away from the structure within which it exists, but it does succeed in being enjoyable and emotionally moving. The reason for that, mostly, is related to its setting. John Musker and Ron Clements, the movie’s directors, embarked on a massive journey of learning and researching in order to bring life to a world that is unknown to many, and the results are visible.
The design of the boats, the legends that are told, the languages that are punctually used, the expressions of the characters, and the region’s way of life are all either partially or completely grounded on reality, a quality that lends the setting a great deal of believability. And the movie uses that solid platform as a starting point to a sea adventure that merges realism with the crazy kind of fantasy that could only exist in an animation, including extravagant coconut-shaped pirates that behave like the lunatics from Mad Max: Fury Road, a voyage to the depths of a psychedelic Realm of Monsters, and absolutely jaw-dropping visuals – which nod towards both Life of Pi and Polynesian art – that make Moana Disney’s most beautiful movie up to date.
Still, the greatest step Moana takes in the direction of differentiating itself from other great Disney standards is neither artistic nor related to its setting, but in how it completely shuns the idea of featuring one main villain. Therefore, the movie becomes not a battle between good and evil, but a story that revolves around characters. Additionally, given how a huge portion of the quest is spent with Moana and Maui traveling through the ocean, the plot’s sidecharacters – although masterfully developed and poignant in the messages they send, with Moana’s grandmother, the heroine’s moral compass, being the clear highlight – fall by the wayside. That way, Moana aims its spotlight towards the titular character and Maui, and it reveals two of the best and finely developed personages to ever appear on a Disney animation, making their turbulent relationship into the plot’s guiding thread.
Consequently, the key to Moana’s greatness as a movie does not lie in its general format. Its excellence is actually found in the construction of its setting and in how it uses the hearts of two characters, with all their beautiful qualities and weaknesses, as the main roadblocks that separate total doom from the coveted goal. It is, therefore, the Disney fairy-tale with which it is the easiest to connect, because although it does deal with the supernatural in many occasions, the ultimate problems that need to be solved are those that exist within ourselves, and no amount of magic can help us overcome them. In the end, then, Moana’s journey and growth may be a tad cliched, but the way in which it is rolled out is absolutely fantastic, and transforms the movie into yet another great entry in the hall of Disney animation.