The Year of Moana

In my little corner of the world, this was the year of Moana. What a funny thing to celebrate - an animated feature from late 2016 - in an end-of-2017 piece on a film website.

Surely, people with small children will understand. My Anna turned 2 years old in November, and the measure of her rapidly increasing attention span has been the amount of uninterrupted focus she can give to Walt Disney Animation Studio's most recent feature.

As the months have gone by and we have logged more and more viewings, she has become more and more captivated by it - by the dazzling animation, the memorable characters, the bore-in-to-your-brain songs co-written by a man of the moment, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Eventually, I think, her familiarity with the film and all of its great little moments became part of the appeal too. For a cinephile, knowing a cherished film well - knowing its lines, its beats, the way, say, the fireworks burst over the Disney castle at the beginning - can deliver its own dopamine hit. Much to my delight, my daughter's love of film seems to be budding.

I think people who have seen Moana can understand the Year of Moana too. A little over a year after its release, it already feels as if the movie was underappreciated in the moment of its release. Perhaps repeat viewings have left me brainwashed by the all-powerful Mouse, but, in my accounting of the film, Moana is the best Disney animated feature in almost 25 years, putting it in the same rarefied air as the trio of films that defined Disney's modern golden age (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King).

Perhaps that's creative accounting. I've deliberately separated out the films of Pixar in so making that proclamation. I'm comfortable with doing so - for the vast majority of that period Disney and Pixar seem to have operated independently despite sharing space in the same financial statements - and I think it remains a statement with plenty of significance.

Moana, no matter where it stands in the Disney pantheon, deserves celebration. It is funny and poignant. The music is really, really great; I haven't tired of it despite countless listens in the car to, oh, just about anywhere. Staring at the waves as they lap against Moana's outrigger canoe is a bit like peering in to a campfire. It is entrancing - a tribute to the technical wizardry that has always been a part of Disney magic.

Moana is also, it must be said, a film of the moment - almost more of 2017 than of the year of its release. It feels significant for Disney - a brand synonymous with Princesses - to have made an animated movie about a heroine with no royal title and no love interest. Moana saves the world from environmental disaster mostly by learning how to sail and holding her own alongside a demigod with magical powers.

There's a whole essay to be written (or that already has been) here, I am sure. But it's not one for me to write. There's the inconvenience of John Lasseter being the Chief Creative Officer who signed off on the project, for one. More personally, I would prefer to celebrate the movie on its own considerable merits and not reduce to a capital-M Message Movie.

My Anna doesn't necessarily see a positive feminist message when she's singing along with "How Far I'll Go," though it certainly might be there for her to internalize. She sees a great film - one that is fast becoming a classic, in our house and many others like it at least.

FeaturesAndrew Johnson