Deep, rich ‘Moana’ transcends the Disney mold

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“Moana” is the greatest Disney film of all time.

There, I said it. But before you get out your torches and pitchforks for “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” or “The Lion King,” you 90s babies you, just hear me out. “Moana” encompasses everything those films do and so much more.

The biggest praise I can give for “Moana” over other Disney films is that its nuance and depth outshines the average Disney tale that viewers know and expect. It does many things that Disney lovers will be longing for and does them fantastically, but there are enough unique moments and viewpoints to look at the film with to fill a book.

First of all, the villain.

At first glance, casual viewers will immediately point to the giant lava monster, Te Kā, as the easy villain. Te Kā is ominous and frightening, both in design and stature, and is the final obstacle between our main heroes to complete their mission. But, no. Te Kā is not the villain. Neither is the dragon-like giant crab, Tamatoa. Neither are the malevolent, yet adorable, Kakamora. No, my humble readers. The villain in “Moana” is you.

That’s right, you. More generally, the human race as a whole (but that isn’t as punchy of a reveal, so we’re sticking with “you”). As we come to find at the end of the film (spoilers here), Te Kā isn’t actually a heartless, violent beast, but rather the result of selfishness and neglect from the humans she serves. Te Kā is actually the goddess Te Fiti who served the earth as a sort of “mother nature” figure, and it wasn’t until the demi-god Maui stole her heart that she was transformed into the unrelenting anger that is Te Kā.

The kicker that makes this such a brilliant plot device (as well as an explicit yet severely underplayed environmental message) is that Maui had no cruel intention when stealing the heart. The heart has the ability to create life itself, and Maui steals it to give to the humans that he loves so much. Sure, Maui likely made this decision based on the idea of a more-heavily boosted ego among his loyal human “fans” (made clear by the excellent characterization in his song “You’re Welcome”), but the intent was good-mannered regardless.

In a way, the humans are indirectly responsible for the heart being stolen, which not only leads to Te Kā emerging, but much later after the heart is stolen, it is also discovered that Te Fiti was the main lifeline between nature and the human race.
Without Te Fiti, eventually everything will die, leaving no resources for the humans. If it wasn’t for the humans constantly feeding Maui’s ego, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to steal the heart for them, dooming them to a future of starvation.

More elements that make “Moana” such a perfectly crafted animated film are a lot more obvious, but they cannot be ignored at all.

As expected from a big Disney property, the animation of “Moana” is absolutely stunning. The setting and culture that “Moana” is based in allows for so much unbelievable creativity, and it shows throughout the entire run time. The water looks amazing, the skybox looks amazing, and when some of the more mystical elements appear, these, bar none, are some of the most visually appealing moments I’ve ever seen on film. Disney has always made it a point to make some of the most beautiful landscapes and creative imagery around, and “Moana” safely continues that legacy.

The songs are also one of the more obvious areas that make “Moana” work so well, which is also expected, as Lin-Manuel Miranda, who skyrocketed to fame after writing and starring in the stupidly popular “Hamilton,” was hired as the lead writer for all of the music. Miranda doesn’t miss a beat with “Moana,” as every song not only sounds great but fits perfectly into the context of the film, something that Miranda is incredibly familiar with doing coming from musical theatre.

Some of the problems I have with more recent Disney films (i.e. “Tangled,” “Frozen”) is that some or most of the songs presented in them could exist without context, which is good if you’re looking to sell soundtracks, but not necessarily good for the actual stories they were invented for. Each song in “Moana” does multiple things at once: characterization of the characters doing the singing and being sung about, sets the tone for scenes to follow and, most importantly, moves the narrative along. The only exception here is the villain song by the aforementioned Tamatoa.

This song does very little to move along the story, but when analyzed, it’s easy to see why. Another enormous mistake recent Disney films have made is not including a proper villain song, which is the exact function of Tamatoa’s “Shiny.” The song may not do much to propel the story along, but it doesn’t have to. Moana gets Tamatoa to sing as a distraction for Maui to steal back his magic hook, which also leads to another excuse for the animators to go absolutely bonkers with detail and creativity, so it still very much fits and makes sense.

The final point I’m going to make is mostly a personal observation, but thank the luscious locks of Te Fiti that Disney finally brought us a legitimate adventure film, the first in way too long. Adventure films, to me, should not be too dissimilar from “buddy road trip” films: Our protagonist(s) has a quest, this quest takes the heroes on a journey in which specific destinations are reached and problems are dealt with (sometimes reflecting deeper character flaws with each encounter), and the heroes reach the end and either fail or succeed, concluding the adventure.

This is not a hard formula, but it is an old one, which is probably why it’s been shied away from by Disney for so long. These tend to be my favorite kind of films, so score another point for me.

Honestly, I could go on and on. I could explain every natural phenomenon that makes this film work in enough words to fill up this entire issue, but why I love it so much is quite simple. The splendid animation, good humor, fun songs and enjoyable plot make “Moana” a great film. However, it’s the finer, more rich details in the plot, the songs and animation that make “Moana” the greatest Disney film of all time. From the moving music and animation, to the wonderfully characterized and likable characters, to the awesome geek references and homages to such beloved films as “Star Wars” and “The Princess Bride,” to the complex and thought-provoking narrative, to the epic journey Moana takes upon herself. There are few negative elements that I can critically analyze, if at all. It may take a few repeat viewings to fully appreciate all of the perfectly executed moving parts in “Moana” (I myself had to give it a few tries), but trust me. It’s worth it.

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