Beautiful animation in service of a story-by-numbers, Disney delights while following a familiar pattern of narrative.
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 for freedom against restraints as she finds her own unique place in the world.
Just like Back to the Future (which is just like Die Hard and the Brat Pack western Young Guns).
That's right. Disney's Moana is the same exact storyform as the time-traveling sci-fi action/adventure from the 80s. Replace Moana with Marty McFly, Maui with Marty's Dad (or even Doc Brown), and Te Kā with Biff, and you'll find the same emotional growth and 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. Biff, on the other hand, was there to destroy the timeline and generally give Marty and his family a constant reminder of the Consequence of failing to achieve the Story Goal (a Story Consequence of Becoming).
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 (Objective Story Problem 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.
The central Dramatic Argument of Moana revolves around the two Elements of Free and Control, with Moana taking on Free and Maui assuming the polar opposite motivation of Control.
This pair of motivating Elements, which signal the crossover point between Character and Plot, shows up in a similar way in Back to the Future. Marty is all about living Free of restraints and breaking away from the McFly legacy, while George--and definitely Doc Brown--are all about controlling the narrative and keeping things contained.
As with other Lin-Manuel Miranda musicals, these two Elements feature prominently in the solo songs attributed to each character. In Moana we see Free in Moana's song, "How Far I'll Go":
The Element of Control shows up in how Maui feels how he is the one holding the reins over what happens in the world:
These two polarizing aspects of conflict drive the narrative from beginning to end--regardless of how weak the Antagonist may be in the finaly analysis.
Light years apart in terms of storytelling, both Back to the Futre and Moana engage the same narrative 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 Back to the Future and Moana chose the same collection of story points--a familiar collection visited and revisited frequently since the mid-20th century.
The key to Back to the Future'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 Objective Story around fixed attitudes (an Objective Story Throughline of Mind)--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. ↩
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