Moana was everything that I look for in a Disney animated film, and pretty much everything that I might have wanted it to be.
I don't mean to bash on Frozen here because I do think that was a good movie, but Moana essentially fixed all of the complaints that I did have about Frozen, while otherwise going with a similar approach. Mainly I am talking about visuals here: the camera angles, the style and design of the animation, and simply whatever it is that you see within the frame.
Especially now that computer animation allows such realistic visuals, I always need there to be a reason that a film is animated instead of live action, otherwise you can just insert the talking snowman or the unicorn or whatever it is into a live action film using CG. Frozen had amazing animation on the characters' faces, but felt very visually sparse and uninteresting to me. Moana, however, was an animated film by design. The camera moves in its own unique style. While certain elements (like the water) are fairly realistic-looking, all of the visuals (from the characters to the landscapes and so on) have a cohesive and recognizable style. And there are sequences that only appear in animated films: the way that Maui's tattoos move and that one scene with all the cut-out figures. I love sequences like that in animation--and it seems like they've been disappearing from modern films, which I truly don't understand because, to me, this is the art of animation.
I see now why the music of Moana has been so well-received. It has a recognizable style, it's catchy, it always flows, and it perfectly moves along the story. New Disney classics right here. (The one possible exception is "Shiny," but maybe I just found that scene too long.)
Time to move on to story.
Moana shares some similarities with Pocahontas--except that it has less baggage because it depicts only one culture instead of two colliding. It's also perhaps smoother. As with Pocahontas, I love that this film shows respect for nature and even teaches children a little something: "Where You Are," for instance, describes the way that Moana's people use the different parts of a coconut for both food and tools. And Moana's love for the ocean and the ocean's recognition of her love (I, in turn, love the way the ocean kept lifting her back onto the boat) was both a sweet and important message, somewhat reminiscent of the "circle of life" theme from The Lion King.
What I also love is that Moana is not a rebel. I was talking about my thoughts about rebels in fiction a bit in my post on Mulan. Moana doesn't want to rush out to the ocean to spite her father or escape her life. She loves her father and she loves her island and she loves her people. I vastly appreciate that. Her love of the ocean is simply her love for one more element, and it's a love that she is eventually able to share with her family and her people, a love that she is able to remind them of. She restores balance, so to speak.
Moana is the title character of this film, but Maui is also quite central: they really are a duo, mostly equal in importance in the story. I didn't think that I would like Maui--but he surprised me. His character goes from appearing as a basic picture of arrogance to revealing a person who is searching, someone who is trying to fill a longtime void and to find recognition and to try and find that he is worthwhile. Though Moana is the one who physically goes on the journey, Maui is the one who goes on the emotional journey. Sure, Maui teaches Moana to sail--but Moana teaches Maui that he matters, simply because he is himself. It's a good theme that is often done in either a too flat or Hallmark way, but here it flowed well and realistically without appearing contrived or forced. Not only did I appreciate the theme; I also appreciated that it centered around a male character. Sure, I love a good female heroine--but let's not forget the male characters, either. Especially when it's a children's film, there ought to be both male and female characters for children to watch; you don't need to choose one or the other when there can be both.
The restoration of the island at the end of the film was very pretty, and Te Fiti reminded me of a dryad out of Narnia and the Pan, god-like figure in The Wind in the Willows both at once. She is Nature. And when you treat Nature with respect, good will come out of that.
I started this post talking about Frozen, so let's go back to Frozen to finish off, as well. People praised the theme of Frozen, for what it said about sisterly love and such. So I found myself wondering, after I got over simply enjoying Moana, what its central theme was. All the themes seemed like side themes rather than central themes--and then I realized that that's because Moana is primarily an adventure film. Sure, Moana learns some things along the way and teaches some things to others, but she basically just went on an adventure. And I love that. This film was an adventure, and I enjoyed the journey.