“Moana,” Disney’s most recent animated movie, came out on November 23rd. I would have been in a theater seeing it that day but Holidays are stressful and always busier than you expect them to be, so after a delicious Wendy’s dinner in a Revere parking lot, I saw “Moana” the following Monday.
“Moana” is hands-down the most beautiful 3D Animated movie Disney has made yet. It’s hard not to spoil things, so if you haven’t seen it yet stop reading, but when Moana sings her final song, “Know Who You Are,” and the whole scene that immediately follows is genuinely breathtaking and I think could become one of the most iconic sequences in animated history. The songs, written as a team effort by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i, are easily the best Disney’s had in decades. Still, considering the sheer beauty of this movie, I l found myself sitting in my car feeling disappointed.
I considered what was so disappointing about seeing this movie I had been anticipating since 2013, and while that 3-year build-up probably played a part in Moana not living up to my hopes, I realized a more tangible reason; I was bored. Not with the characters or the animation or the music, but with the basic plot. A determined and optimistic character finds a just as determined but reluctant character, and they go off together in a classic odd-couple road trip.
Disney Animation is in a new Renaissance era generally referred to as the “Disney Revival,” marked by the success (both financial and critical) of their recent movies as compared to the ones they made during the 2000s, such as “Chicken Little” or “Meet the Robinsons.” Depending on who you talk to, this Revival began with either 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” or 2010’s “Tangled,” but almost always skips 2011’s “Winnie the Pooh.” Whether this new age started with an amphibian kiss or 70 feet of hair, all but two movies have followed the basic “odd-couple road trip” plot that Moana also follows. That’s still a lot of road-trips; five or six in about eight years.
This makes most of the movies in Disney’s Revival Period Road Movies; a whole genre defined by the characters going from one place to another with several stops along the way. This is a tried and true plot that either works really well or very poorly. Most of the films produced in Disney’s Revival have added different ports of call to their plots, making them all feel somehow distinct from each other, but doesn’t actually change the arc of the story.
In “Princess and the Frog” and “Tangled,” a romance grew and blossomed along the way, but were threatened by big bad villains actively meddling in the voyage. While “Wreck-it Ralph” has no romance or big bad until the final act, it has a constant threat in the Cy-Bugs, which ultimately merge with the big bad forming a new threat. “Zootopia” similarly has no romance or big bad until a twist in the tail end, but the contemporary allegory for racism and bigotry hits so close to home that it’s nearly impossible to not be emotionally affected by it. “Frozen,” which has undoubtedly become the “Beauty and the Beast” of this new Disney time-period, has the most refreshing road trip because it’s fruitless. Anna recruits Kristoff to find her sister Elsa and bring her home, but once they get to the Ice Palace not only can Elsa not help them, she has no interest in coming home. Romance also abounds in Frozen, but ultimately plays second fiddle to Anna and Elsa’s complicated relationship.
Moana, however, was just a road trip cut and dried. Moana has no love story, and it is exciting to see a human story from Disney where a boy and a girl meet and don’t fall in love. There is no big bad villain, though Maui spends the movie fearing Te Ka, and no real constant threat because the bad guys are dealt with as quickly as they appear. Yes, Moana and Maui have to go through a whole ocean of bad, but the “bad” in question are really more so just waves that quickly break on the shore. There is a beautiful narrative throughout the whole movie for Moana figuring out what’s important to her, but I didn’t find it as impactful as other Disney Heroine’s because she overcomes her obstacles so easily with little-to-no consequence. Ariel, whether she knew it or not, spent three days in the palm of Ursula’s hand. Mulan literally had to go to war for what she believed in. Elsa, though not the heroine of “Frozen,” has to struggle against her own anxiety and depression to gain self-control.
Moana is easily the strongest heroine Disney has had in a long time, which is made obvious in how quickly she defeats everything that crosses her path. She’s fiercely independent, where Rapunzel is the definition of codependency. Romance never crosses her mind, where every attractive man in “Frozen” is Anna’s love interest at some point. Maui has more struggles than the typical animated leading man; trying to compensate for a family that abandoned him and living without the powers he had equated to his self-worth. Together, they spend about five minutes defeating each threat, never to hear from them again. I would have been far more excited if the Kakamora and Tamatoa both resurfaced as Moana was going up against Te Ka without Maui, but I guess those plot lines were left at the bottom of the ocean.
Moana isn’t a bad story for being a road movie, just one I’ve seen a lot in the last few years, and one we’ll see a lot more in the next few years. “Wreck-it Ralph 2” comes out in March 2018, and has been described as Ralph’s adventures on the internet. “Gigantic” comes out in November 2018, which is said to tell the story of a boy named Jack who finds a lost giant, and has to get her back to her home above the clouds. After that is “Frozen 2” at some point, which little is known about but will probably repeat the formula for success laid out in the first movie, which is probably why we have so many road trip movies from the house of mouse. The formula is working after everything Disney tried failed for so long.
I love Disney movies, it would feel hypocritical if I was a traditional animator who didn’t have some kind of deep connection to the studio that made the first animated feature film, but I’m eager to see them change their ways. Most of their classic movies soared without a prolonged adventure. Yes, the characters almost always went somewhere, like Belle to the Beast’s castle or Snow White to the Dwarfs’ cottage, but the whole movie wasn’t dedicated to the getting there, but what happened once they got there. A physical journey of distance is fine once in a while, but with something in between more often than “Big Hero 6.”
Ultimately, “Moana” is a wonderful film that I look forward to watching again, possibly in theaters one more time. There’s nothing wrong with a road trip movie, but after so many in a row, your passengers are going to get antsy.