Moana is Underperforming Now, But Just You Wait

By  · Published on January 5th, 2017

The animated feature will go down in history as one of Disney’s most popular classics.

There’s a good chance Moana will leave the Golden Globes empty handed this weekend. And it probably won’t win any Oscars either. The awards for best animated feature will go to 2016’s other Walt Disney Animation release, Zootopia, as has been the pattern so far. And unless there’s a strong campaign to get Lin-Manuel Miranda swift, record-breaking EGOT status, La La Land will pick up honors in the original song categories.

Meanwhile, on the financial side of things, Disney’s latest is also proving less popular than its recent studio peers. After six weeks in wide release, Moana has quietly grossed an impressive $214m domestically, but in the same time frame, Zootopia made $296m, and the Disney-Pixar sequel Finding Dory had made more than double, with a whopping $460m. Moana is also unlikely to join the other two past the billion-dollar mark globally.

Both of those measures of success are fleeting in the grand scheme of Moana’s life, though. In the long run, I see the movie having a much greater life and legacy than Zootopia and Dory. Fans don’t care about awards or box office numbers or Rotten Tomatoes scores when they’re enjoying movies long after their release. Of the three titles, Moana will be the one that’s most watched, most beloved, and most thought of as a classic in the years ahead.

The better movie to compare Moana to is Frozen, Disney’s phenomenally popular 2013 feature. Yes, that movie did win the Oscars for animated feature and original song (and the Golden Globe for animated feature), and by its sixth week in wide release it had made a higher $297m, and it went on to take in more than a billion dollars in worldwide gross. More importantly, though, young children, including those born after 2013, continue to obsess over its songs, its characters, its costumes, and more.

This is partly an observation I have about Frozen as a father of two young children, but I also see it with their peers and in toy stores and on Halloween. And I see it – though this is for older fans – in a variety of pop culture arenas, including online fandom and cosplay. I don’t know that there’s definite data other than the obvious prevalence of licensing, but Frozen seems to still be the biggest Disney brand property there is (that is excluding Marvel and Star Wars), more than three years later.

Moana is easily comparable to Frozen in its content. While the new movie appears to borrow from numerous Disney animated features of the past, including The Little Mermaid, Lilo & Stitch, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, and many more, it primarily follows the formula of Frozen, albeit with significant enough changes that it’s not totally obvious. But after watching both movies with my kids over and over and over (no, I don’t have a bootleg copy of Moana; we’ve been wearing out my awards screener), here are some notable parallels:

  1. Both movies are about a teen girl who has to leave the land she’s meant to rule over due to a threat to that place. In Frozen, however, it’s the girl who poses the threat herself.
  2. Both movies begin with the girl at a much younger age and then show her growing up over time during a musical number.
  3. Both movies’ leads have a magical connection to H2O, with Frozen’s Elsa being able to manipulate water in snow and ice form and Moana’s title character being assisted by a seemingly sentient ocean.
  4. Both movies see a girl – let’s just acknowledge Moana is equal to two characters in Frozen, sisters Elsa and Anna – traveling with a companion who initially is reluctant to help then continually ridicules and bickers with her. In Frozen, though, that’s all just sexual tension and the two become romantically involved, while Moana keeps it platonic.
  5. Both movies have one particularly catchy song – the main single off the soundtrack and the greatest awards contender – sung by the girl and centered on a title lyric ending with word “go.”

That last one is especially important, as noticed in how quickly my kids have been picking up the words to Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” and singing along. The long o sound of “let it goooooo” and “how far I’ll goooooo” is very easy and fun to reach for kids, even toddlers. Other things my kids have latched onto with Moana that I think is similar to the appeals of Frozen include those younger versions of the characters. They refer to them as “Baby Moana,” “Baby Elsa,” and “Baby Anna” (note: Dory also has a “Baby Dory”).

And they like song lyrics briefly sung by those “babies” – there’s the very popular “do you want to build a snowman?” line from the song titled after that phrase in Frozen and the “I wanna see” line from Moana’s “Where You Are” (which is also the movie’s equivalent to Frozen’s coronation day song, “For the First Time in Forever”). They like when characters are physically altered in silly ways, like when Frozen’s Olaf has his body parts all mixed up and when Moana’s Maui has a shark head but human legs.

As for what the new movie offers us parents and other adults and those children who will grow up forever loving it, there are some faults we can recognize similar to those of Frozen. One in particular is its lack of a strong villain. Yet Moana does improve on the emotionality of its predecessor, which to go full pun left many of us a bit cold. From the death of Moana’s grandmother and her reappearances later in ghost and stingray forms easily bring tears, as does the main character’s song to the goddess Te Fiti at the end. Plus there are a number of less weepy heartwarming moments.

And while there was some advancement with Frozen for the strong, independent representation of women in Disney Princess movies, Moana goes an extra measure with its lack of a romantic interest and its unrealistic yet empowering disregard for patriarchal tradition in Polynesian culture. Speaking of that culture, though, it’s otherwise mostly respectful to its representation, especially in its non-whitewashed casting.

Moana Takes Classic Disney to New Frontiers

I have to recognize that because of some of the differences between Moana and Frozen that many children will favor the latter, at least at first. Elsa’s more conventional Disney Princess attire will remain a popular look for little girls and even some older ones. It’s not wrong to assume my daughter biologically identifies more with Elsa than Moana on a very superficial level, but she has already said she wants to be the latter next Halloween (she was Elsa last year). Her brother wants to be the slapstick rooster, Heihei.

Already, my kids watch Moana constantly, much more than Zootopia and Dory (both of which we also own) combined – about as much as they used to watch Frozen. They also listen to the soundtrack daily, decorated our Christmas tree with Moana ornaments, play with talking/singing Moana and Maui dolls, wear matching Moana pajamas, and perform their favorite scenes. They strangely still claim to like Frozen more, but we’ll see how far the Moana fandom and appreciation goes in three years and beyond.

Moana is expected to hit home video sometime in March.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.