Raleigh, N.C. — A cynic might say that Walt Disney Animation Studios lost its heart and what made it unique in 2010 with the release of "Tangled." It was the first movie released after the studio announced that it was abandoning hand drawn animation and that all of its future releases would be digitally animated.
In a way, I share that sentiment.
I grew up on Disney. I was in my formative, film-discovery years during the studo’s second golden age ("Little Mermaid" through "Lion King"). Plus, my mom had every classic Disney movie on VHS in our home, so I am dyed-in-the-wool with this company. It’s sad to see animation evolve to the point that Walt’s "Nine Old Men" wouldn’t even recognize the work the people they inspired are doing now.
But here’s the thing - the stories are better. The scope in a lot of cases is grander. In short, digital animation didn’t kill Disney. It didn’t make it unrecognizable. Digital animation made it clear what made those old movies so great. Who cares how Simba was drawn? What makes you love him is the way he reacts in that moment he realizes Mufasa is dead.
The Genie isn’t the best part of "Aladdin" because of the way he moves on screen. It’s because every line out of his mouth his hilarious. The hand drawn films look amazing and are absolute artistic feats, but, without the stories and developed characters that inhabit those landscapes, all those pretty pictures would be good for is hanging on museum walls.
Since making the switch to digital, "Frozen" is held up as Disney’s gold standard.
The 2014 film features a good story and great music, and it secretly made little girls everywhere realize that they don’t have to be defined by what other people think -- and also that they need you to buy them a shiny, baby blue dress. No, Dad, not that $25 one from Target. The real one from the Disney Store. It’s only $85!
Anyway, I am here to tell you that Disney’s latest release Moana has better music than "Frozen." It has a better hero than "Frozen." The plot is more well developed than the one in "Frozen." "Moana" should be considered the studio’s new gold standard!
The movie is inspired by the Polynesian myth of Maui, a demigod with the ability to transform into whatever animal is necessary as he creates the world for humans. In "Moana," Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who unlike our president-elect, is not in the WWE Hall of Fame), is more of a supporting player.
This is the story of Moana (voiced by newcomer Alui’i Cravalho). She is the daughter of the chief on their Polynesian island. Her father believes in the practical. As he watches fishing spots become empty and coconut trees begin to rot, he is sure moving the boats and planting new groves is the answer. His mother (voiced by Whale Rider’s Rachel House) knows that the real answer lies in the mystic powers of the ocean.
She tells her granddaughter to seek out Maui. He once stole the heart, a green jewel, from the Mother Island that made all other islands. Without the heart in its right place, the monsters that the Mother Island protects humans from are free to cause all the damage they want. Let’s not do the normal recap here. Part of the fun of "Moana" is watching the story unfold, because let’s be honest. You don’t know this story. Let’s just talk about what is good and what isn’t.
This is the story of tradition versus adventure. It’s appropriate too, because this is a new kind of Disney adventure with some very traditional story elements.
Let’s start with the fact that this is a Polynesian story. That means we get a lot of Polynesian influence in the soundtrack and even in the animation. It’s not just that we see shirtless, tattooed characters. Even the color pallet fits in. Fellow Disney aficionados will walk out of the theater homesick for a visit to the Polynesian Village Resort. More on that in a second, because there is a lot of this kind of thing.
One of the best things about "Moana" is the way water is animated. Disney has come along way from the ripples and bubbles that wowed us in "The Little Mermaid."
The soundtrack is downright amazing, and it should be. The songs were co-written by Hamilton scribe and chairman of the Mike Pence fan club Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i, one of the most respected Oceanic musicians on Earth.
You still get the soaring vocal arrangements of traditional Disney songs, but the music really shines when the songs incorporate elements of traditional Polynesian instruments and chanting. To make that sound work in a musical environment is truly impressive.
Even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who again, I must stress is less important to the history of the WWE than our future president, gets a solo. Now, The Rock is a multi-talented guy. He can wrestle (although apparently not as well as President Trump). He can act. He’s generally a pretty funny and charismatic guy.
One thing The Rock cannot do is sing, but no worries! Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i figured out a way around it. The result is a song that features a lot of fast talking and melodic spoken word (did I just invent a new genre?), and I would say it is one of my favorite Disney songs since “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from "Mulan."
I don’t know where to put this line, but it’s worth noting. I think "Moana" marks the first occasion where Disney animators have put nipples on characters. Just a fun bit of trivia there.
The tradition is the story structure and the new mold of Disney Princess (remember the capitalization; it’s a brand now). Somewhere around the time Pocahontas jumped off that waterfall, Disney decided it was done with damsels in distress. From that point on, the company lived in the world of self-reliant women. Moana is no different -- self-reliant, adventurous, curious and just a little bit less brave than she thinks.
I want to circle back to the influence the Disney Parks have clearly had on "Moana" or, at the very least, on my perception of "Moana."
There are these adorable killer coconuts called Koka Mora. So much about their scene invokes Disney’s classic ride The Jungle Cruise. The huts on Moana’s Island look suspiciously like the ones that house Sunshine Terrace in the Magic Kingdom. Again, this could just be my nearly 50 visits to the parks coloring my view, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.
I loved "Moana!" My kids really loved "Moana!" I am sure we’ll be heading back to the theater at least once before it leaves and then we’ll be first in line to buy the DVD when it comes out. That’s what you’re supposed to do with Disney movies, right?
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.