There are a few things that can be counted on every November: legions of turkeys will be slaughtered in America and sacrificed to the altar of Thanksgiving, Santa will show up at the end of the Macy’s parade, thus officially heralding the Christmas season, and Disney will release an animated movie. Since 2010, only one year has passed without a Thanksgiving Disney film, and most of those that have seen release have been quite successful at the box office, including worldwide phenomenon Frozen just a few years ago. Generally, this slot has been reserved for the Disney Animated Studios releases like the aforementioned Frozen, Wreck-it Ralph or Tangled, and after a quick Pixar interlude last year with the profoundly disappointing The Good Dinosaur, Disney Animated Studios has returned to resume its November dominance with a taste of Polynesian culture in the form of Moana.
The film takes its title from its title character (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of an island village chief whose fascination with the sea is stoked by stories told by her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House). Her father, Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison) forbids sea travel in part due to a traumatic event in his past, but when the island’s coconuts begin to rot and the fish in the lagoon disappear, Moana becomes convinced that her grandmother’s stories about the demigod Maui stealing a stone of life from the island goddess Te Fiti are the key to their village’s lost prosperity. Blessed with an affinity for water, Moana takes to the sea to find Maui, reunite him with his magical fishing hook and escort him to Te Fiti to return the stone to its rightful place. When she discovers Maui (Dwayne Johnson), though, she soon learns that he isn’t all that interested in holding up his side of the prophecy bargain, and will take some convincing to do what he has to do to save her village and allow her to become the chief she needs to be.
Moana’s Polynesian setting feels quite fresh compared to a lot of Disney’s recent projects (Lilo and Stitch is its closest analogue, as well as that awful Lava short that ran in front of Inside Out), but it doesn’t take long to settle into the Mouse House’s time-worn successful story structure, with a young girl and her animal sidekick (this time an extremely stupid rooster whose clucks are provided by veteran Disney voice actor Alan Tudyk) forced to go on a quest against the wishes of her parent in order to save the town. More specifically, Moana feels very of a piece with Aladdin, likely thanks to the main character having a mischievous and extraordinarily powerful companion (Maui has the ability to shapeshift once he’s reunited with his fishing hook). This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, considering that directors Ron Clements and John Musker happened to have helmed both films.Johnson’s voice performance certainly isn’t as manic as Robin Williams’ classic turn (because, let’s be honest, no one can be as manic as Robin Williams in his prime), and he’s a far more reluctant ally when he first meets Moana, but his animated tattoos (including a tiny version of himself that acts as a sort of conscience) and signature song (“You’re Welcome,” written by Hamilton creator and potential EGOT recipient Lin-Manuel Miranda) share a similar verve.
One thing that Disney appears to have inherited from Pixar’s last few efforts is cutting edge water effects, with the oceans of Moana so lifelike it almost becomes distracting (I had a similar problem with the ultra-real settings of The Good Dinosaur). The decision to turn the sea into a character all itself, represented by a sort of amoeboid pseudopod that rises from the surface to lend a helping hand or shake its...head? at Maui disapprovingly as he seeks to shirk his responsibility. The film succeeds most when injecting that sense of whimsy into the otherwise rote storytelling, exemplified most by a standout sequence involving a covetous giant crab (Jemain Clement) singing about his love for shiny objects while trying to crush Moana underfoot. The songs in general are solid, with “How Far I’ll Go” and “We Know the Way” representing particular highlights (though I must say that actually having Lin-Manuel Miranda sing on “We Know the Way” without playing a character was oddly distracting when the rest of the singing was diegetic). The voice acting is strong throughout, with Johnson continuing to expand his bid for worldwide domination while also getting in touch with his heritage, and the directors find little avenues to inject some creativity into the proceedings (including an extended homage to, of all things, Mad Max: Fury Road) to make sure the film doesn’t feel too much like it’s on the rails.
Moana is a film on the rails at the end of the day, though, and while it does strive admirably to spice things up, it’s still the same basic story we’ve seen in dozens of other Disney movies across the years. Granted, the Disney formula exists because the Disney formula works, both from a storytelling and a crowd pleasing perspective, and Moana surely succeeds as a crowd-pleaser. Still, that gnawing sense of the familiar does tend to encroach from the sidelines, robbing some of the sequences of their emotional punch by virtue of straying too close to embracing the formula (a segment straight out of The Lion King is perhaps when the film is at its most egregious). Disney animated films have to work hard to justify themselves after nearly 80 years of animated films that often tell the same basic story. That’s something that Zootopia managed to pull off successfully in the spring and Finding Dory managed to fall short of in the summer. Moana finds itself somewhere in the middle, less superfluous than Finding Dory, but less vital than Zootopia. At the end of the day, it’s a fun Disney movie, a trifle that will keep you entertained for 100 minutes, but it doesn’t quite have the staying power of the studio’s giants. It’s solid, but not much more.