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