Moana Makes the Most of Modern Animation


It’s easy to take the success of Moana for granted. Disney animation is coming off a string of hits, and can reasonably be said to be in a third golden age. But what’s spectacular about Moana is only there if you look for it.

From a story perspective, the movie is unchallenging middle-brow entertainment. The brave young Moana and the blowhard Maui are exactly who you expect them to be, and their characters develop along predictable beats.

Of course Maui will acknowledge his mistakes and see past his ego. Of course Moana will save the world with her will and empathy. There are no surprises here, and that’s how it should be for an almost-all-ages Disney cartoon adventure.

There has also been a lot of virtual ink spilled about Moana‘s progressive values. In the Age of Trump, Disney’s commitment to diversity should not be taken for granted. But again, this is the easy choice. If you don’t look at Moana’s values and say, “Of course!”, then you’re a cave-dwelling troll. It should be no surprise that the creative folk at Disney are not trolls.

So much as I enjoyed Moana, it’s not exactly cutting edge. So why did I enjoy it so much?

Moana’s 21 Years of Animation at Once

I’m not a graphics guy. I design games using math and psychology, not visual intelligence. I can tell artists all about a character I want to see and have no idea what she looks like. But even I can tell that Moana’s animation is great.

More importantly, I know just enough about computer animation to know just how hard that greatness was to come by.

“Remember Toy Story?” I told my long-suffering elder daughter on the way out of the theatres. “Remember how they made it about toys because they couldn’t make humans look right?”

Look how far we’ve come since 1995. Look at the bodies. The hair. The water. the fire. HeiHei’s feathers. 2D animation inscribed on Maui’s rippling three-dimensional muscles. The many environments from lagoons to caves to underwater grottos and the open sea.

These things used to be impossible. Then one movie would make hair work and make headlines. Scientists explored how to make water wet.

Step by step, animators have been advancing and building on those advances. And Moana has taken all these techniques and run riot with them. The variety of environments, the mix of realism and caricatures — it’s spectacular.

I don’t know how well Moana will hold up in the bigger picture of animation history. Like Aladdin, it’s a well-crafted entry in the middle of a series of monster hits and classics. It might get a little bit lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by expectation-busting predecessors like Frozen. But Moana is an amazing showcase of the art of animation today, and it’s likely to be a favorite on the Disney Movies shelf for years (generations?) to come.



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