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Moana (2016): Movies That Made The Decade

As we enter not only a brand new year but a whole new decade, AFA's writers and contributors look back at some of their favourite movies of 2010-19 in The Movies That Made The Decade.

Logically, its entirely ridiculous to see any film from the all-powerful Disney as an underdog. With a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's hard to describe Moana as underrated exactly (except elsewhere on this very site) but I still can never entirely shake the feeling that Moana never really got its dues. Its box-office total of $643 million worldwide makes it a hit but could be considered a relative disappointment in comparison to the $1 billion plus taken by Zootopia (aka Zootropolis) earlier the same year.

And it's only really by the metric of Disney's own insane success that it could be seen in any way as lesser. It certainly didn't have the same cultural impact that Frozen has had- even without the benefit of last year's sequel Anna and Elsa weren't going anywhere. It also had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Zootopia, which was a genuine phenomenon. You get the feeling that Disney wasn't expecting things to go down that way- Zootopia was more of a risk, whereas Moana was given the prestigious Holiday opening spot (the same occupied by Frozen three years before). It was a similar story on the Awards circuit, with Zootopia taking home the lion's share. It even lost out in Best Original Song to City Of Stars from La La Land. It's easy to speculate that if Moana had been released in a year when it was the only Walt Disney Animation Studios release it would have been a very different story.

I'm a fan of Frozen, and I love Zootopia but for me, Moana is Disney's best since The Lion King (the proper one). The film is the perfect blend of the old and the new. It feels like classic Disney while at the same time modern and refreshing. Tangled and Frozen updated the classic Disney musical for the modern era, but Moana perfected it.

Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker could probably do this sort of thing in their sleep. And with them at the helm (with Don Hall and Chris Williams credited as co-directors) the film has a classic Disney feel. But by working with fresh talent they also manage to bring in it into the 21st century.

Part of what feels new is the location itself. It's a culture and setting rarely seen on screen before, let alone in a big-budget Disney animation. I remember admiring the first concept art released when the film was first announced, and being instantly captivated.

And the beauty of that original art was captured perfectly in the film itself. The environment of the film is simply breathtaking, with its lush tropical beaches and unspoiled blue oceans. It's no wonder no-one leaves Moana's island. On its release in winter 2016, it brought a little much-needed sunshine into all our lives. Watching Moana is like going on a wonderful holiday without leaving your seat.

The Pacific cultures featured are treated with a great deal of respect, and made sure to cast people from the correct background. The depiction seemed to be generally well received within the Pacific Islander community (although of course, it's impossible to please everyone).  And the value of seeing a Disney Princess who wasn't just another white girl had an impact far beyond the Pacific community.

Many female fans were excited about Moana herself's design too, expressing delight to see a female lead who wasn't skinny as a twig. The character design and animation is across the board some of the best ever seen in a Disney film. The characters look cartoony but there's a subtlety to their facial animation that makes them totally believable.

The story itself too is a blend of classic Disney tropes and something more up-to-date. Moana is a dreamer who longs to see the world beyond her island, but she's also treated as a future leader of her tribe. The fact that she's a girl never even comes into it. Many typical classic tropes are notable by their absence- there's no romance, there isn't a villain in the classic sense, and Moana still has both her parents by the end of the film.  On the other hand, there are animal side-kicks (an adorable pig and a very stupid chicken) and Maui fills the role of the comedy co-star voiced by an A-lister.

And it's a part that Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) was born to play- his larger-than-life offscreen persona making him perfectly fill the shoes of the demigod. Kudos too must go the supporting cast, with Temura Morrison,  Jermaine Clement, Nicole  Sherzinger and most of all Rachel House (as Granny) all bringing their all to the roles. But at the heart of the film is the wonderful performance of Auli'i Cravalho as Moana herself, proving to be an utter natural in the role- and having one hell of a singing voice.

You can't talk about Moana without mentioning the phenomenal soundtrack. Unlike Frozen, which seems to largely forget its a musical in the second half, Moana is full of absolute belters all the way through. Not being into musical theatre, it didn't provoke much of a reaction from me when I heard Lin Manuel Miranda, would be contributing the soundtrack. But I came to understand why some of my Hamilton-loving AFA colleagues were so excited when I got to hear the finished results. There's the usual Dinsey film mix of barnstorming ballads, jaunty comedy songs and rousing reprises. But thanks to his collaboration with Pacific Islander Opetaia Foa'i, it also brings a distinctive regional flavour to the soundtrack. Also, let us not forget that there's a very Flight Of The Conchords-esque number that also feels like a David Bowie tribute, with Jermaine Clement's Shiny.

Clement's What We Do In The Shadows collaborator Taika Waititi was also involved at an early stage (writing a first draft of the script), so he likely deserves some of the credit as well (I'd be surprised if none of his jokes or story ideas were used in the final draft.

Frozen may have the billion-dollar sequel, the stage show and TV specials, but for my money its Moana that earns its spot in my Movies That Made The Decade. You're Welcome.