I have to make a confession here, and hope I can humbly beg your pardon: I still haven't seen Moana in a theater yet.
Don't worry, I have an airtight alibi: I have a Disney Cruise coming up in February, and hoped that I was just in time to plan ahead and hold off seeing the newest Disney animated in time for the experience of seeing it three months later in the onboard theater. Whether I should hold off on "Rogue One: a Star Wars Story" as well, in December?--Ohh, temptation.
So even if I can't yet discuss the movie in detail as other lucky folks might, I do know one indisputable fact from experience: It is almost IMPOSSIBLE for directors John Musker & Ron Clements to make a bad Disney animated movie. They're considered the "architects" of the Great 90's Disney Renaissance--those holy words that conjure up our great childhood decade of When Disney Animateds Were Good--just for their work straight out of the gate on "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin".
"Ron & John" seem to possess an instinctive genius for understanding the "neato story" aspect of a great Disney movie that sticks in the memory, and push the right buttons like concert pianists. A lot of Disney fans sing praises that the Great Classics of 90's Disney were Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise's "Beauty & the Beast" and Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff's "The Lion King", but I offer an alternate theory: The zeitgeist manias for Beauty & Lion both occurred one delayed-reaction year after the surprise of grownups discovering that it was "okay" to like Mermaid and Aladdin, respectively, something you just didn't go around admitting at the time.
After the entire 80's, when Disney was considered at death's door, and "animation" was considered only fit for corporate kiddie marketing of the Chipmunks and Care Bears, no grownup literally wanted to be SEEN going to a Disney movie by themselves, and some worried they might even be accused as some kind of weird pedophile. Go back and look at the 1992 press reviews for "Aladdin", and see critics virtually reassure grownup audiences that no one would think badly of you, so long as you were going to laugh at Robin Williams' jokes. The movement to give Beauty & the Beast a Best Picture Oscar nomination (born of early buzz-desperation and a big-event screening at the NYC Film Festival) was not so much a search for awards, as a search for public validation that it was okay to have liked Ariel & Sebastian a year before.
(I'm in the minority of just not finding Beauty and Lion particularly very good movies, and just a tad short on charm.)
If this November's "Moana" is getting good reviews for its strong story and characters, well, it's all in a year's work for these two.
If you don't believe me--and need a few disk rental suggestions to keep from going back to see the movie again--look back at four of the directors' earlier titles that, for one unfair reason or another, DIDN'T quite become as iconic Disney staples:
- The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Musker & Clements were the new young co-directors brought in to help flesh out old-Disney directors Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener, and you could see a catalyst change right away: To the untrained eye, it LOOKED like a late-70's/early 80's Old Disney movie, fresh off of "The Rescuers" and "Fox & the Hound", with cute animal critters and a basic confusion about where to put songs in because, well, they "had" to...But there was a new fast-moving energy and humor to the story, chases were more exciting, gags were funnier, and the plot even now seemed to have some actual story structure. Most of the humor came from the titular hero, Basil of Baker Street--the mouse who lives in Sherlock Holmes' apartment--as a manic lunatic of Holmes-like inspirations and impulses, as he chases rodent-London's worst villain (voiced by Vincent Price, clearly having just as much fun as Barrie Ingham's hero).
Why you probably didn't see it: Well, few did. It took a lot of word of mouth to persuade parents back to a theater after Cauldron. But the diehard hopeful enough to go back got the surprise message: Prepare, ye unsuspecting 80's folks, 90's Disney is coming. (Only it's not coming just yet, there's still '88's old-school "Oliver & Company" to slog through first, before the good stuff.)
- Hercules (1997)
In 1994, "The Lion King" had become so (inexplicably) unstoppable, everyone assumed the blessed 90's Disney Renaissance would last forever. That's why most audiences had such problem coming to grips with nagging, forbidden, heretical thoughts that 1995's "Pocahontas" and 1996's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" just might not have been very good movies, if not, in fact, insufferably melodramatic, manipulative and corny. Hunchback, in particular, had laid so heavily and over-earnestly on the now creaking conventions of the Disney Villain and the Broadway-Style Musical Number, it was clear that the camel was becoming dangerously overladen and someone might be along the next year with a piece of straw.
A fast-moving, "Aladdin-style" pop-culture-reffing Looney Tunes spin on Greek mythology should have been the antidote, but at the time, backfired with grumbling audiences spectacularly. All the blame for Everything You Happened to Hate About 90's Disney (or ABC, the Parks, you name it) was put on the head of CEO Michael Eisner; '97 audiences found the "contemporary" gags forced, sitcom and desperate, and the implied message that Disney was making, quote, "boring" Greek mythology more palatable by gagging it up seemed like it had Eisner's tasteless corporate style written all over it.
Ron & John reportedly weren't happy with the intended Helzapoppin-burlesque style--every time they tried to pitch their dream project, then-studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg would stick them on the house project to keep them busy--but...they made lemonade with their lemons: Even if not every gag lands, there's still as much energy in a musical number like "Zero to Hero" (with the narrating Muses depicted as a gospel-Motown group, straight out of songwriter Alan Menken's days on "Little Shop of Horrors") as there was in any of Aladdin's high-energy numbers, and the result still looks like the work of someone who knows what a good 90's Disney movie should look like, even when it might not be.
Why you probably didn't see it: Suffice to say, whatever 90's audiences were picturing "Disney Greek mythology" to look like at the time (probably picturing the Pastorale scene from Fantasia), it sure wasn't this. The idea of getting British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to design the wild angular style confused audiences, James Woods' movie-stealing Disney-villain turn playing Zeus's scheming brother Hades as a motormouthed Hollywood agent came off more overbearing than funny, and everything that should have gone over in the room at the time didn't. Despite its rescued reputation on video--and a Disney Afternoon TV-cartoon spinoff--it passed Black Cauldron's record as biggest studio money-loser in theaters, and nearly brought the 90's Renaissance to a crashing halt, if '98's "Mulan" hadn't shown up the next year.
Traditional 2-D animation had a problem from '00-'03--Everyone was trying to kill it, so that they could figure out the reasons why it was "dying". Audiences' grumbles with Michael Eisner had become a full-on mutiny, after Roy Disney had started the "Save Disney" movement at the studio to kick the CEO out. Jeffrey Katzenberg at Dreamworks Animation noticed that women were the biggest fans of the princess-bashing anti-Disney gags in '01's "Shrek", and knew how to play the grudges against his old boss to stir up the rabble. '98's "The Rugrats Movie" for Paramount had started a "Cable Bubble", for every corporate studio to leap on hoping that there was a feature-film for cult cable toons like Hey Arnold or the Powerpuff Girls, and tried to explain why it was popping.
- Treasure Planet (2002)
Worst of all, among all the industry's voodoo-analyses, was trying to figure out why three high-profile sci-fi-action animateds in '00 and '01--Don Bluth's confused "Titan AE", the technically ambitious but clueless "Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within", and Disney's own unlikable and bewildering "Atlantis: the Lost Empire"--had all tanked at the box office. Well, there ya go, analysts rolled their chicken bones and divined, it clearly shows that audiences hated space action!
Disney actually had fairly high hopes for theirs: One of the last projects from the legendary "Jam session", where animators first pitched story ideas for Aladdin and Mermaid, was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island", updated to a sci-fi galaxy of alien pirates, Royal Navy space-sailships and 19th-cty. interplanetary seaports.
As crazy as the idea sounds, it's still a wildly visual and spirit-faithful adaptation of the original book: While other directors at Disney worked on "girl power!" princesses, Musker & Clements' strength was creating memorable male heroes for the boys, and the book's Jim Hawkins is updated into a moody, thrill-seeking teen who finds his missing "father figure" in the sympathetic but menacing cyborg Silver, both played in perfect book style without an ounce of irony.
(Updating mad castaway Ben Gunn to circuit-scrambled comedy-relief robot B.E.N., voiced by Martin Short, was a bit less successful, but by that point in the story, you just go with the book's spirit.) Even the famous "Pieces of eight" parrot is updated into a cute alien shapeshifting blob who has clearly studied with Aladdin's monkey Abu, in how to steal comedy-relief scenes with pantomime.
Why you probably didn't see it: Hoo-boy...Was there a marketing problem this movie WASN'T saddled with when it came out in theaters? The main reason you probably didn't see it was Lilo & Stitch--The SaveDisney movement needed a "messiah", and Disney didn't quite expect a crazy little Hawaiian girl and slobbery alien vandal to catch on quite as well as they had. The studio didn't know how to market their tropical summer surfing picture, and expected it would be long gone from theaters in time for the Big November Epic...But when word of mouth was still going strong after the summer, most fans were barely aware Disney even had one more movie opening that year. Eisner quickly bought the "Audiences hate action!" theory, tried to beef up the humor, and recut Treasure's action trailers and ads as a wacky comedy of pratfalls and farty-noises.
The other problem was that maybe it wasn't a good idea for the studio to release the movie within two weeks of both a 007 movie and the second Harry Potter. Throw in the fact that "The Santa Clause 2" was doing a little stronger than expected, and Planet now had three crushing contenders for its opening weekend. It crushed, opened fourth, and Eisner was mortified that a 90's Disney movie, gasp, didn't open at #1. To save face, he pulled it out of wide release in time for the stockholders' meeting, thus depriving it of that sweet Christmas-vacation business most studio family films now count on. Disgruntled fans, waving Lilo & Stitch on their banner, and hoping that director Chris Sanders would be put in as new CEO to make "more weird movies!", shouted that Planet "deserved what it got"...Nasty old normal Disney movie! STAY down!
- The Princess & the Frog (2009)
Okay, this one you probably remember. But I'm still betting you didn't see it.
If Eisner hadn't been kicked out in time--after a lot of studio in-fighting, staff firings and a disastrous fight-picking with Pixar--there wouldn't likely have BEEN a Disney for Bob Iger and John Lasseter to rescue at the end of the 00's. Eisner had been so publicly cowed by audiences jumping on Katzenberg's anti-princess bandwagon in '03's "Shrek 2", he felt he had to personally offer the studio's head as apology for all those terrible princesses chauvinistically marrying princes, and corrupting our daughters' dreams. 2007's "Enchanted" was originally going to be a lot less gentle of a spoof on Disney princesses, and a much angrier, or at least more passively-hostile one, and the "Rapunzel" story in the works was going to be rewritten for two transported teens who hate fairytales, but then a miracle happened: The Stinky Guy was at last ousted, more Disney-friendly heads were put in charge of the studio and animation division, and all of a sudden, it was okay to like princesses, fairytales, and happy musical numbers again. Oops.
Musker & Clements had been one of the "director firings" after they couldn't adjust their latest project to the all-CGI that Eisner declared all new studio projects would be, but one of Lasseter's first announcments at the studio was that the Mermaid directors would be invited back to do one more old-school traditional 2-D animated princess musical...Nyeahh. Fans were excited--We were about to see seven troubled studio years finally buried on hallowed ground.
Now, I said it was "almost impossible" for M&C to make a bad movie. Have to admit, this is the "almost": There are good ideas here, two of them, in fact, and they seem to pass by on separate trains and never meet. One was the idea to adapt E.D. Baker's fairytale spoof "The Frog Princess", where the princess's kiss on the enchanted frog backfires, and the two hop through the swamp to find the cure. But Baker's book was set in a generic fairytale castle, and the studio's idea was to update it to 1920's New Orleans, with jazz, gumbo, and a heroine who dreams of opening her own restaurant. See, that's the idea, she wants to be a successful career woman and NOT marry a prince, since the prince is a comically irresponsible ladies-charmer from a bankrupt country, while the heroine's buffoonish spoiled-Southern-belle best friend throws herself at any prince she can find...Have we got the message yet? Have we reminded you yet in this scene that our heroine wants to open her own business all by herself? Have we got our crash helmet on, to protect us from falling bricks, or do we need to get out the Crayola crayons?
Even though the "story" is a bit of an improvised shambles, with a rush of storyboards and supporting characters that don't go anywhere, Musker & Clements clearly went into this project in love with the setting, and if you have a choice of watching the Not-A-Princess Movie and the New Orleans Movie fight it out, the New Orleans movie is more rich and visual fun to root for.
Why you probably didn't see it: You mean, BESIDES the fact they put it in theaters a week before "Avatar"? (Nobody has yet been able to explain why movies that open in the second week in December suffer calamitous fates, but I'll wait a few weeks to see who's this year's victim, before explaining it. Don't worry, there's a reason.)
The same voodoo-analysts (no relation to this movie's voodoo-doctor villain) came up with every imaginable crackpot theory--Racist audiences weren't ready for a black heroine? Nobody liked musicals after all? Boys didn't want to see a princess movie? Nice tries, but the popular favorite was the traditional old "Told ya 2-D animation was dead!" from way back in 2003--Just hard to let go of a classic, especially for those hoping that Disney was ready to "stumble" under new management. 2010's "Tangled" quickly dispatched those ideas for good the next year. (Although the fact that Tangled had been all-CGI still took the credit.)
Now, I know what some are saying right now: "What? How dare you say Hercules wasn't a hit!" "Princess & the Frog? My daughter loves Tiana at Disneyland!"
Well, see, that's the thing: Audiences change. Trends die out. Cooler heads prevail. We all find something else to be angry about, and forget why we were all so mad at the last thing.
Disney head Bob Iger deliberately thumbed his nose at all the "Told ya!" industry dogpiling on Princess & the Frog's box-office by immediately declaring that the heroine, Tiana, would now OFFICIALLY be a part of all licensed Disney princess marketing from now on, so there, haters, neener. As a result, it worked--Like the movie or hate it, it's now probably the second-most visible 00's-10's movie to be seen at the Disney Parks behind "Frozen", and certainly one that sticks in the memory of new young fans. Some, raised on a generation of DVD and Blu-ray, already aren't even aware that anyone had ever said bad things about Hercules or Treasure Planet.
That's what home theater is for, after all, for a movie to Outlive History, and give someone else a chance to see it. Not to mention, making it a lot easier if you did happen to miss it.