At one point in Moana, the boisterous braggadocious Maui (Dwayne Johnson) points out the largest of the films many plot holes.
It was something I had been willing to overlook; Disney’s reputation is such that I’m instantly willing to suspend disbelief. But once Maui brought it up, I naturally expected Moana to address it. The film never does. In pointing out its own enormous logical leaps, even within the bounds of its own magical world, I’m reminded of Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression. “Your words, not mine.”
The plot holes are just one in a series of errors that constitute Moana, the second-worst flagship Disney film since the Little Mermaid renaissance (Pocahontas is the first; why can’t Disney figure out how to do a native people?). Its titular protagonist (Auli’i Cravalho, in her debut role) is plucky to the point of annoyance. Her companion, Maui, comes off largely as obnoxious and unpleasant until we finally realize his inevitable inner vulnerabilities (imagine Flynn Rider, but neither funny nor charming). Its art direction is at times breathtaking and at other times somewhat plastic-looking, like characters and settings were designed with future spinoff toys in mind. Its humor is awkward, full of painful puns that the actors’ deliveries only sometimes save (most of the laughs come from the peanut-brained chicken sidekick, whose stupidity leads to some pleasant slapstick).
But Moana’s biggest disappointment is in its overall narrative. Recent Disney films like Tangled and Frozen reveled in bending the princess-movie stereotypes that Disney has worked so long to establish. One can never forget the dream-struck rogues of Tangled or the true-love-between-sisters twist of Frozen. Moana, on the other hand, embraces these stereotypes full-on, checking off all the boxes on its generic characters. Moana, especially, feels like walking the well-trodden ground. She’s a princess, daughter of an overprotective father, she’s competent, she wants to see the world, and she knows that there-must-be-more-than-this-provincial-life. We’ve seen this character before, and we’ve seen her better (at least, during her strict adherence to a cut-and-paste Hero’s Journey, she never has time to fall in love). Her quest is entirely forgettable; she needs to get the Thing to the Place and can expect to encounter three Obstacles along the way. She’ll gain confidence and believe in herself and embrace her identity, and eventually defeat a giant monster in a wholly anticlimactic way.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s music serves as a frequent high-point, but while the catchy tunes are on-par with other Disney films, the lyrics are caught up in the undertow. Of the film’s already short soundtrack, two songs amount to little more than lists, one giving a general overview of Polynesian cultural practices (although where in Polynesia it’s impossible to tell; it seems to combine cultures of completely different islands) and the other recounting Maui’s adventures. It’s as if to shout “look at all the research we did!” to a predominantly white audience.
With a series of hits in Big Hero 6, Frozen, and Zootopia, Disney Animation Studios put serious wind in their sails. Too bad Moana does little else but capsize and sink.