Disney has been on quite a roll, both creatively and financially, since Wreck-It Ralph arrived in theaters in 2012. They proved it wasn’t a fluke with Tangled and then cemented themselves, once again, as the leaders in animation with the absolute gem that was Frozen. Things aren’t slowing down anytime soon for the Mouse House as they appear to have yet another hit on their hands with Moana (the seventh film on my list of Ten Fourth-Quarter 2016 Films to be Excited About).
Following the adventures of Polynesian islander Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) and demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as they set out to right a wrong committed years ago, thereby breaking the resulting curse, Moana somehow simultaneously eschews Disney tradition while also staying firmly rooted in its wheelhouse. I personally prefer the Disney films that feature human characters rather than anthropomorphic animals. And within that genre, Disney has mastered the tale of the female protagonist. Moana reinforces that legacy while also adapting to modern sensibilities pertaining to what it means to be a strong, modern woman.
Moana and Maui make a good pair but they are philosophically separated by one fundamental difference. Maui defines himself entirely by his magical hook gifted unto him by the gods. Without it, he has no self-confidence. He suffered a serious loss earlier in life and has never been able to mentally or emotionally recover. Blaming his shortcomings on the absence of his missing hook absolves him (in his mind) of personal responsibility.
On the other hand, Moana (one of Disney’s most likable characters) is completely sure of herself. She’s smart, resourceful, and fully capable. She doesn’t need rescuing. She doesn’t need saving. She knows that her true strength is found within. But, she learns the hard way that – as powerful as she is – she still needs help. She struggles to find this balance and occasionally goes too far in the wrong direction, becoming entirely dependent upon someone or something else to accomplish a goal for her. When she does this, she fails. Every time. But when she stands tall and assumes the responsibility for the task at hand, while perhaps allowing herself a little assistance, she becomes one of the more capable movie characters of the entire year.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Moana is one that will sadly go unnoticed by many viewers but is quite a novelty for a film with a female protagonist. It’s also a perfect illustration of just how Disney is leading the way when it comes to female empowerment in film: there is no love interest. If you pick up on this while watching the film, it’s a huge breath of fresh air. There’s no sense of inevitability or resignation to the relationships in the story. And there’s obviously no sense that women are defined by the men in their lives. Frozen pulled this off, as well, despite the presence of Kristoff. That film prioritized family and sisterhood over romance. But, in Moana, Disney finally gains the confidence to just jettison the obligatory boyfriend-in-waiting entirely and let Moana stand tall on her own. (Pixar did this in the aptly-named Brave, as well, yet I argue that it’s a bigger deal in a Disney film because that theme has been their Golden Goose for decades.)
The film is funny and has great music, but neither of those aspects are on the level of the aforementioned Frozen. But where Moana comes out ahead is in the cool factor. It’s got the Rock. It’s got epic action sequences. It’s got breathtaking locations. And it’s got fantastic beasts (way more fantastic than that other movie). I was hooked by every element of the film from start to finish: the deeper filmmaking components and the cosmetic aspects both shine. The animation, in particular, is awe-inspiring. There’s a moment when Moana is singing while heaving the sail of her boat. If you notice, there’s a fleeting second when, despite being deep in verse, her eyes dart upwards to ensure that the sail is casting properly. Not only does this add a touch of realism, but it also helps to further define her character as being sharp and focused at every waking moment. It’s this astonishing attention to detail that generally sets Disney so far above its competition in both the technological and storytelling realms. Don’t let the little things pass you by.
If it wasn’t 2016, Moana would be the best animated picture of the year. However, it has to compete with an instant classic in the form of Kubo and the Two Strings. The Academy Awards should be interesting, though, as I think Moana has a good shot at winning in that category, anyway (not enough people saw Kubo, though those who did will likely vote for it). Zootopia can stake a claim, as well, however, so I’ll be curious to see how it plays out. Regardless, Disney is very much its own strongest competition, these days, and in Moana, they have not only one of the best animated films of the year, but one of the best films of the year, period.
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