Moana ★★★½

Trust in Ron Clements and John Musker to turn the tide when the Mouse House animation seemed to have been swept away this year by a strong Japanese anime wave in the likes of Your Name. and The Boy and the Beast. And naturally, Moana was the one to drown at the box office compared to Disney's Zootopia and Pixar's Finding Dory.

Moana delivers the usual Disney pedigree of a princess (alright, chief's daugher) who resents her "royal" obligation and instead indulges in adventurous longing beyond the realm of her known world. Like Merida in Brave, Ariel in The Little Mermaid or Jasmine in Aladdin she actually gets to leave the boundaries set up by her ruling father. It's the same old, same old – but hardly anyone delivers it so confidently as Disney does.

Especially during the first act and at the end of the climax the movie's emotions will grab at your heart like the current at your ankle. You may talk yourself into believing the water on your face is just a result of the powerful 3D in combination with the Pacific setting but deep inside you know this movie just washed over you and tried to take some tears away with it. In moments like Moana's first interaction with the ocean as a toddler the film's story matches its animation in being truly tear-jerkingly beautiful. The main problem Moana has lies in the second act.

Although I never thought I'd say this about any movie I believe this one would've been better without The Rock in it. Moana's longing for the world beyond her reef and ultimate endeavour into the unknown soon marginalize the heroine once she meets up with Dwayne Johnson's demigod Maui. A seemingly narcissistic egoist who essentially kickstarted the whole main plot of the movie we eventually find out more about him, his background and his motives yet this hardly warrants as much time spent with the character as Clements and Musker do. Despite proofing herself in each action set-piece and prevailing as the leader of the mission Moana feels more like an appendage to the hulking Maui. At the end of the film his character is the one who did most of the growing up, since Moana is basically already where she needed to be once she decided to hop on her raft.

Another flaw of this circumstance is the fact that Maui isn't as likeable as the film probably thinks he is. He is not fleshed out enough beyond his demigod status up until the end of the second and beginning of the third act and as an accompanying comic relief sidekick never fully pulls his weight like Genie in Aladdin for example. Most of the supposed humor stems from his interaction with his tattoo-self which becomes a running gag with a bad leg. This is made even more clearly when the film gets its mileage out of the single simple gag of the bonkers rooster Heihei, stealing every scene he's in.

Maybe it is because Maui is literally such a big character that he overshadows Moana but it is still a shame that this great new entry into the gallery of strong female Disney princesses/chief's daughters doesn't manage to get the full credit she deserves. And I do believe the issue behind this is Johnson's character – possibly pimped-out due to the popularity and appeal of Johnson's current persona – since the first 25 to 30 minute without him are easily the best part of the movie (at least for me). The climax furthers this point when Maui is used more sparingly than during the 45 minutes in the middle section.

I still do like Moana as a character a lot. She is warm and funny, stubborn yet flexible. A quick thinker with an altruistic heart. In true royal fashion she puts her own yearning aside to serve her people, even though ultimately she will return to her aspirations in an attempt to save her tribe. She prevails within each encounter beyond the border of her island, thanks to quick wit. Finally it is her understanding and compassion that wins the mission in a way of course correction compared to climaxes the like of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King et al.

Visually this movie is a stunner, from the animation of the island flora and Moana's hair (wet and dry) to the crystal turquoise waters of the ocean. I don't even want to know how many work hours went into computer generating those graphics – but they were worth it. The songs of the film, most prominently How Far I'll Go but also You're Welcome, don't initially catch on but proof themselves to be real winners by the end of the journey.

So why didn't Moana make more money or get more publicity this year? As of December 27th it resides at #25 of the worldwide box office (in the States it is #12) – way beyond Finding Dory (#2) and Zootopia (#3). Considering the year Disney has with powerhouse performances from Captain America: Civil War (#1) and The Jungle Book (#4) with Rogue One at their heel one could regard Moana as quite a stinker for the Mouse House. Yet compared to the rather bland remake/sequel Finding Dory and the uneven Zootopia I see Moana miles above them.

Does the film's underperformance stem from the Polynesian characters and setting? Looking back at 2009 when Ron Clements and John Musker brought The Princess and the Frog to the movies the story about Disney's first black princess also wasn't a success story. It barely crossed the $100-million-mark at the domestic box office and came in at #24 worldwide. Lilo & Stich from 2002 with their Hawaiian protagonists made around 275 million dollars worldwide – that's a fifth of the money Frozen made in 2013.

Now I don't want to say Disney films about non-caucasian characters are seemingly just not that appealing for caucasian audiences. Both Pocahontas and Mulan fared rather alright in 1995 and 1998 respectively and even Tangled, a new take on the Rapunzel story, was not on par financially with Toy Story 3 the same year. Yet it seems weird that the Disney movies about non-white heroines like The Princess and the Frog and Moana make less money than the ones about their white fellows. Brave wasn't a smash hit in 2012 but it still made 25% more than Moana domestically and internationally even doubled the intake. Both are very good but the one pulling in more money is the one about the white character and not the non-white.

Whatever the reason may be behind the undeserved box office results of Moana I still had a very good time with the probably most beautiful looking animated movie of the year.

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