Disney’s run in the 90’s (pretty much from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan) was fueled by their reliance on a formula of featuring a strong female lead, a dope male hero, some funny and cool sidekicks, a villain you loved to hate, and a memorable soundtrack. Disney would check off each of these boxes and then roll their movie out to wild success.
In the 2000’s, Disney got away from that and their movies suffered because of it (here’s looking at you Home on the Range, Chicken Little, and Bolt). Learning from their missteps, Disney have been trying to get back some of that formulaic magic since 2009 with the release of Princess and the Frog. While 2010’s Tangled may be the best of the post formula-following Disney movies, and 2013’s Frozen may be the most popular, it may be their newest movie, Moana, that best encompasses that 90’s Disney movie feel.
Moana tells the story of a young girl, named Moana, who loves the water and dreams of sailing the ocean. As is the case with every Disney movie, there are some obstacles stopping her from realizing her dream, like her loyalty to her island and the expectations of her becoming the chief of it. Bummer. Of course that won’t keep her there forever because it isn’t before long that some unforeseen circumstances lead her to leaving the island and having the classic Disney journey to see how far she’ll go.
Not only does the movie follow the Disney formula, but it also takes inspiration from previous films. Moana’s relationship with her father feels a lot like Ariel’s and King Triton’s. The non-speaking character of the Ocean will draw references to Carpet from Aladdin. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character, the demigod Maui, reminded me of Robin Williams’ Genie. Even some of the music will sound similar to past songs.
But even though it hits some of the old Disney check boxes, Moana does take some liberties. Most noticeably, is that Moana does not fall in love with anyone. I repeat, Moana does not fall in love with anyone (and I hope that’s not a spoiler). She’s never given the chance. There’s no strapping male (her age) who sails the ocean beside her or that she meets along the journey. This may not sound like a big deal to some, but this is a large departure from the formula. Every Disney princess has always had her male counterpart or prince that she falls in love with.
It’s not Disney’s first swing at changing a gender expectation. In Frozen, Anna was saved by her sister Elsa rather than the predicted male hero, Kristoff. But Moana takes it a step forward by not including a male love-interest at all. It’s fascinating to say the least, but it’s not as if the film is without a male hero. Maui serves as the cool guy that all the young boys can still root for and dress up as for Halloween.
The movie isn’t without it’s bumps, such as an odd pirate attack that felt like a scene squeezed in so Disney could sell future merchandise; as well as a villain that felt like Disney missed on fleshing out and making more memorable.
But at the end of the day, Moana is the story of the title character, her journey to finding who she is, and her relationship with Maui, and those are the places Disney succeeds. Moana’s journey is compelling enough that it feels fresher than previous tales, and her uncompromising ambition makes her perhaps the most likable heroine since Mulan. Her relationship with Maui shines on the screen, and while both their character arcs are predictable, it is still entertaining enough to watch play out and come back for seconds. Some of the best scenes in the film are them on the boat doing nothing but talking. The movie does a great job of showing a mentor-mentee bond, and how each can learn from one another.
The soundtrack attached to the movie is everything you’d want, with an ensemble opening, a solid solo ballad, a fun side character song, and even a villain song. While you won’t find a “Let It Go” in the movie, you’ll still find each song compliments the movie in its own way, while staying true to the pacific island theme. Years from now, when you hear a Moana song, you’ll know it’s Moana; and the same can’t be said about all of the latest Disney releases.
In the end, solid movie. Still not quite the better-than-the-90s film that I’ve been hoping to see, but Moana was on par with some of them, and that’s still saying a lot. Definitely worth checking out!