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Moana

Beautiful animation in service of a story-by-numbers, Disney delights while following a familiar pattern of narrative.

Structure: 3/5 | Entertainment: 4/5

Insanely beautiful animation and imaginative songs in service of a pedestrian story, Moana enchants the senses while not giving much for us to remember. Adhering strictly to form, this latest from Disney Feature Animation fails to surprise in its telling of one girl’s journey to stand up against tradition as she finds her own unique place in the world.

Kind of like the Star Trek movie from 2009.

That’s right. Disney’s Moana is the same exact storyform as J.J. Abram’s reboot of the sci-fi television series. Replace Moana with Captain Kirk, Maui with Spock, and Te Kā with Nemo and you’ll find the same emotional growth and same plot progression—just without the same narrative impetus that results from weaving the Antagonist throughout the entire story.

Te Kā starts to “infect” the world, but then disappears for 2/3 of the narrative, only to return at the end to give Moana and Maui someone to fight against. Nemo, on the other hand, was there to destroy Vulcan and generally give Kirk and friends a constant reminder of the Consequence of failing to achieve the Story Goal. With Te Kā all but absent for a majority of the narrative, the Audience for Moana is left wondering what the big deal is with her ocean voyage. Sure, Jemaine Clement’s coconut crab Tamatoa and the Kakamora pygmy pirates entertain as they work to prevent Moana from reaching her goal (Overall Story Symptom of Avoidance), but without any clear connection to Te Kā’s destruction of the world the sequences come off episodic and secluded—perfect for YouTube, but deficient in terms of narrative.

A Story with Form but Little More

Light years apart in terms of storytelling, both Star Trek and Moana engage the same story engine:

  • Kirk is concerned with what he is going to do with his life, Moana is concerned with what will happen to her people (Main Character Concern of The Future)
  • Kirk is the son of a great starship captain trying to figure out his place in the universe, Moana is the daughter of the tribal king trying to figure out her place as the chosen one (Main Character Throughline of Situation)
  • As Protagonist, Kirk sees preventing Nemo from destroying the world a problem and pursues a path straight for him in an effort to stop the destruction. As Protagonist, Moana sees preventing Te Kā from destroying the world a problem and pursues a path straight for her in an effort to stop the destruction. (Overall Story Symptom of Avoidance, Overall Story Response of Pursuit, & Overall Story Goal of Obtaining).
  • Kirk faces a stoic and pig-headed adversary driven by ego named Spock. Moana faces a stoic and pig-headed adversary driven by ego named Maui (Influence Character Throughline of Fixed Attitude).
  • Kirk’s adversary Spock is given to bouts of explosive behavior that eventually comes under control. Moana’ adversary Maui is given to bouts of explosive behavior that eventually comes under control (Influence Character Problem of Uncontrolled & Influence Character Solution of Control).
  • Kirk and Spock develop a relationship centered around the issue of devotion to crew and Federation. Moana and Maui develop a relationship centered around the issue of devotion to the indigenous people of the world and to completing the journey to restore Te Fiti (Relationship Story Issue of Commitment).
  • Both Kirk and Spock find it difficult to grow close because of the underlying current of distrust and skepticism that both feel towards one another. Both Moana and Maui find it difficult to grow close to because of the underlying current of distrust and skepticism that both feel towards one another (Relationship Story Problem of Disbelief).
  • Both Kirk and Spock resolve their relationship when they begin to believe in one another and trust the other. Both Moana and Maui resolve their relationship when they begin to believe in one another and trust the other (Relationship Story Solution of Faith).
  • Kirk finds himself driven to take action when others tell him not to do something and grows by holding out for others to stop thinking less of him. Moana finds herself driven to take action when others tell her not to do something and grows by holding out for others to stop thinking less of her (Main Character Problem of Oppose & Main Character Growth of Stop)
  • Kirk stays true to himself and his worldview while maintaining the emotional fortitude to convince Spock to fundamentally change the way he approaches problems. Moana stays true to herself and her worldview while maintaining the emotional fortitude to convince Maui to fundamentally change the way he approaches problems (Main Character Resolve of Steadfast, Influence Character Resolve of Changed).

Note that not every story operates along these same lines. As of the publication of this analysis (December 2016), the Dramatica theory of story identifies 32,768 different unique storyforms. It just so happens that out of these 32,000+ forms, both Star Trek and Moana chose the same collection of story points—a familiar collection visited and revisited frequently since the mid-20th century.

The key to Star Trek’s success with this narrative is its development and elaboration of the storyform with additional storytelling built on top. Moana’s storytelling is sparse and light and builds little on the form (an unfortunate consequence of its 103 minute running limit). Add in a “Save the Cat” sequence that is so glaringly obviously ripped straight from the Blake Snyder legacy and you have a narrative that is literally by-the-numbers.1 Functional and serviceable, but transparently predictable.

Contrast this with the monumentally unique and imaginative Zootopia —a film that strays so far from the norm that it ventures to explore an Overall Story around Fixed Attitudes—and one sees how Moana represents a step to the side.

More than Story

Moana gets so much right. As a former character animator with over twenty years of experience, I can tell you that the character animation in the film is absolutely astounding. Whoever was responsible for the animation on Moana’s grandmother Tala is a true artist who elevates the art form far beyond what Milt Kahl and Ollie Johnston were able to accomplish with their characters.

The music too is inventive and incomparable. As mentioned, before the song sequence with the coconut crab is an animation masterpiece worth watching several times over.

Moana is a beautiful and captivating film that delivers a sensory experience unlike any other. Know going in that the story stays true to form and expect little in terms of surprise and you will receive an enjoyable hour and a half of pleasant entertainment. And be sure to stay around until after the credits…


  1. And this from someone who strongly advocates the use of a complex story algorithm to help delineate and identify the deep thematics of a successful and functional narrative. ↩︎

Final Storyform Settings

Story Engine Settings for Moana:

The image above is taken from the Story Engine window of Dramatica Story Expert. Story points in BLUE represent choices made by the user. Story points in RED reflect implied story elements provided by Dramatica.

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