Looking at Moana and saying “It’s just the same story that Disney’s made before” is like looking at Starry Night and saying “It’s just a picture of the night sky.”
Yes, Moana is the story of a girl who wants to leave her home and controlling father and sneaks off with an animal sidekick to meet a magical companion and go on musical adventures before living happily ever after. And yes, Starry Night is a painting of a town and stars and a moon and a…mountain? Tree? The descent of the Dark Lord Chernabog in a plume of black flame?
But Starry Night is a night sky revered for its beauty. It’s a mix of dots and swirls of pigment, all woven together into one picture that ultimately ends up being Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Technically, anyone could replicate it with a late-night roadtrip and a Polaroid camera. Moana doesn’t use oils or pigments, but instead computer-generated images and an all-Pacific-Islander cast to tell the same story we’ve heard before. It’s a tribute to a culture, an inspiration to children, and a message that says “Hey, you’ve seen this story, but have you seen it like this?”
Yes, if you’ve watched Hercules, The Little Mermaid, Return of the Jedi, Lord of the Rings, Prince of Egypt, Pocahontas, Aladdin, The Neverending Story, Mad Max, Jaws, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you’ve pretty much seen this movie. But you haven’t seen all of their story elements picked out and swirled back together like this before, using the oils of a Polynesian Disney Princess upon the canvas of a full-length feature.