Princess musicals. That's the ticket: Walt Disney Animation Studios just needs to keep on making princess musicals.

You can set the starting point of Disney's second renaissance under the guidance of John Lasseter wherever you want - with 2008's Bolt, which was the first film for which Lasseter was chiefly responsible for overseeing its production; with 2009's The Princess and the Frog, which was the studio's first fairy tale musical since the 1990s; with 2010's Tangled, the first really substantial box-office hit in almost a decade. Me, I go with Bolt, but the math works out close to the same any way: if you cut off Winnie the Pooh, the sad little misfit from 2011 that Disney seemed to positively despise, half of the movies have been princess musicals: The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, 2013's devouring smash hit Frozen, and now late in 2016 (the first year with two Disney animated features since 2002), the company's 56th officially canonised animated feature, Moana. The other half have not been about princesses, nor are they musicals (though three of them have prominently-featured songs): Bolt, 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, 2013's Big Hero 6, and from March of 2016, Zootopia. I would not hesitate for the smallest fraction of a second to declare the first four movies to all be superior to the second four movies, with all due apologies to the many people who consider Zootopia some kind of high point in contemporary animation, for reasons as mystifyingly foreign to me as ancient Sanskrit. So I repeat: I would very much like it if Disney just focused on making princess musicals from here on out.

Moana is probably the least of these four movies; or maybe it's about on par with Frozen, but for different reasons. I will happily say this in its favor: it does more interesting things with the animation medium than any Disney feature since The Princess and the Frog flicked the "Art Deco" switch for its "Almost There" number, and far more interesting things with the more narrowly-defined medium of 3-D computer animation than any American film by any studio in the whole of the 2010s (this is an embarrassingly small bar to clear, mind you - Moana is still pretty visually conventional in almost all ways that matter). I have to wonder if that's something to with Moana being the first 3-D movie directed by Disney lifers Ron Clements & John Muskers (with co-directors in the form of Don Hall & Chris Williams, who came on to help wrap things up during the usual last-minute story changes), who've now lived through two Disney Renaissances and an interregnum in between, merrily cranking out movies throughout; presumably, they weren't ready to entirely give up the old-school medium that had nurtured them and led to such grand successes in their careers as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and found whatever ways they could to make sure the new movie was in some way an homage to the old Disney aesthetic, if not really a marriage of the old and new. Which it might have been, in a kindlier universe; the rumor mill has been heavily insinuating for years that Clements & Musker's next film after The Princess and the Frog was to have been the first Disney feature animated with Meander, the hand-drawn/CGI hybrid technology introduced in the 2012 short Paperman, or some spiritual descendant thereof, except that it simply wasn't ready for the demands of feature production. Maybe next time; let's all pray for the 63-year-olds to have continued good health and enough ambition for one more feature.

Let's remember that and come back to it a bit later. First things first: what the hell is Moana? For one thing, it's the studio's very first fairy tale/mythological musical that has a largely original story: not that e.g. The Princess and the Frog or Frozen</a have much in the way of a real connection to "The Frog Prince" or "The Snow Queen", but you can imagine the tormented development process that transformed one into the other. Moana is predominately a new concept that draws from the corpus of pan-Polynesian legend primarily in the form of its secondary protagonist and the general attitude of its story and setting (this makes it, incidentally, only the third Disney feature derived from a non-Western culture, after Mulan in 1998 and Brother Bear in 2004*; it's also Disney's second Polynesian-set film, after the 2002 Lilo & Stitch, which I'm otherwise not prepared to describe as "non-Western").

That new concept, incidentally, turns out to have exactly the same start as Disney's own 21-year-old Pocahontas: a young woman, whose father is the local tribal chief, wants to go out and have extraordinary adventures, specifically mentioning water as a metaphor for change and fluidity. Her father's natural caution and belief in the importance of stable tradition hold her back, but a grandmotherly figure with a greater awareness of the spirituality guiding the community urges her to follow her dreams. She has two animal sidekicks: a bird and a four-legged mammal (a pig named Pua, who gets distressingly little screentime). That only gets us a quarter of the way or so into Moana's unhurried 103 minutes, but for as long as it went on, it's kind of impressive how comfortable the new film's seven credited story writers are about pilfering from the company's history. It is, anyway, a better film than Pocahontas, so the pilfering is not without its value.

The young woman is none other than the titular Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), and the grandmotherly figure is her actual grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), who happily embraces her reputation as the village lunatic of the small community on the small Pacific island of Motonui (the name of a place on the west side of the northern island of New Zealand, and, as Moto Nui, an islet near Easter Island; the film's island is a deliberate fiction). Under the rule of Moana's father Tui (Temuera Morrison), and generations of chiefs preceding him, the islanders have remained steadfast in their home, never traveling beyond the gentle waters of the island's bay to fish. Moana - whose very name means "Sea" - is unique in finding this unbearably confining, and has been drawn to the water ever since she was a baby, when the ocean itself moved like a living thing to invite her to explore its depths. Moana's sense of adventure is about to come in very handy: for uncertain reasons, the crops are failing and the fish have vanished, and only Tala's legends offer any kind of explanation. A thousand years ago, the demigod Maui stole the gem-like heart of Te Fiti, the goddess who created all life; for the last millennium, a darkness has slowly crept over the world from the island formed by Te Fiti's living corpse, and it will eventually consume all the islands of Polynesia. The story convinces Moana, anyway, and she heads off in one of the ancient canoes of the Motonuian's ancestors to find Maui and force him to return the heart (which the ocean brought to her as a child) to Te Fiti.

The remainder of the film is an entirely straightforward adventure comedy with mismatched protagonists: Moana finds Maui (Dwayne Johnson) in short order, and discovers him to be a lazy braggart, disinterested in anything but finding the magic fishhook once given to him by the gods, without which he's merely an undying, incredibly muscular human. The pair make an uneasy pact - the ocean's insistence on forcing the two of them together despite Maui's best efforts is almost the solitary reason why - in which he'll return the heart only after she helps to retrieve his hook; along the way, Maui teaches Moana about the great traditions of Polynesian seafaring, now no longer practiced by any living humans, and thus helps to shape the young woman's sense of her place within her culture.

But that's a serious thing, and Moana is hellbent on being unserious. It is the defining mark of nearly all of Clements & Musker's films that they are far more comic than the average Disney film, and this makes no effort to break that tradition. It's slapsticky throughout, tosses in a bit of scatology, and gives pride of place to a brainless chicken, Heihei ("voiced" by Alan Tudyk, apparently for no reason other than to give the studio's reigning good luck charm a role), who is defined entirely by his indefatigable comic stupidity. And these things all generally work. What doesn't - like, at all, to even the smallest degree - is the glut of purposefully anachronistic jokes. For this is another mark of Clements & Musker, first with Aladdin, in the character of Robin Williams's Genie, but even more so with their follow-up to that film, 1997's Hercules, which puts in a strong bid as the most anachronistic thing in Disney history (it is, after all, a story set in ancient Greece that places the title character in a TV ad for a sports drink for one visual gag). It's an annoying, film-damaging bother there, but it's absolutely worse in Moana: Hercules only went for generic, life in the 20th Century type jokes, about things like dialing 9-1-1, or fast-talking Jewish moguls, or smart screwball dames (wait, I'm wrong: there's an Air Jordan gag). Moana has a motherfucking Twitter joke, and I could not possibly have built up enough good will towards the movie to greet that joke with anything but teeth-bared rage. Generally speaking, that's most of what Maui does in the film: he uses modern slang and turns of phrase, he is every bit a Dwayne Johnson goofball in animated form, and this is a very bad thing that cheapens Moana, every bit as much as Hercules> was cheapened by its, or as much as the gargoyles perpetually threaten to completely ruin The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

But anyway, all these things do not ruin Moana, though they surely do take a chunk out of its armor. The film remains a substantially interesting piece of animation, and mostly a successful musical: the overall average quality of the songs, all written by some combination of Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is certainly higher Frozen</a (I think I'd still put Tangled's songs just a tiny bit higher) though there's no "Let It Go"-sized showstopping standout,. There is a certain "Shiny", in which Jemaine Clement sings the part of a greedy crab-god named Tamatoa, that qualifies as a showstopper, in that it stops the ever-living hell out of the movie; it's a godawful attempt at David Bowie-style glam rock that accompanies the one completely useless scene in the movie, and vies only with that idiotic troll song from Frozen as the worst book song written for a Disney film since 1989. The only thing interesting about it is that towards the end, it starts to play with color and negative space, creating a neon-on-black spread of shapes and lines that's disorienting and funny simultaneously.

Everything else is at least pretty good, though some of the songs have an irritating addiction to generic Broadwayisms: the score's best original song by some length, "We Know the Way", is not coincidentally also the one that mostly drops Broadway and pop style in favor of sincerely trying to foreground Polynesia musical forms (the pensive, ethereal "An Innocent Warrior", which has not a single English word interspersed among its Tokelauan lyrics, is very nearly as good, but it's a new version of a pre-existing song Foa'i had already written). That being said, there's good Broadway and bad Broadway, and Moana gets the former: the scene-setting "Where You Are" is, lyrically, absolutely opening number boilerplate, with the whole tone singing about its traditions and that whole deal, but the Polynesian influence makes it unreasonably interesting. "How Far I'll Go", the twice-reprised "I Want" number, is a particularly strong example of the form, with lyrics and melody that tumble out at high speed, and while Cravalho has somewhat too poppy of a voice, she's admirably strong at keeping up with the pace and quick lyrical shifts while also belting real darn good. Even something as not-very-innovative as Maui's "You're Welcome" (Johnson is charmingly bad and adorably committed singer, it turns out) benefits from some pretty fantastic orchestrations in its second half, as it shifts completely into Big Production Number mode, and that's probably the weakest of the film's good songs.

"You're Welcome" also benefits from being home to some of the most interesting animation in the film: as Maui lays out his personal history to Moana (as part of what turns out to be a cheap, distracting trick), the film starts to go all mixed-media on us, with hand-drawn animation and 2-D backgrounds derived from traditional Polynesian art styles interacting with the 3-D characters as a kind of diorama or shadowbox version of a traditional Disney song-and-dance routine. It's also probably the single best argument in favor of seeing the movie in stereoscopic 3-D, though the whole movie really makes that argument: this is one of those ever-so-rare movies for which 3-D genuinely adds a great deal to the experience of watching it.

It's not even the only point in the movie where Polynesian art and computer animation speak to each other in interesting ways: the movie opens with just such a sequence, as some very lovely and colorful flat animation gives life to Tala's story of Maui's theft and what comes after, though this is certainly less aggressive and ambitious than "You're Welcome". What might be the very best thing about the film, though, is present throughout. Maui's body is covered in tattoos depicting his various feats, and to enact those feats he has a tiny tattooed version of himself moving around - apparently with a mind entirely its own, given how often it serves to act as his conscience. A cute enough gimmick, but the very cool thing is that Mini Maui was entirely hand-drawn before being digitally placed on Big Maui's CGI muscles, the first time anything hand-drawn has shown up in a Disney feature since 2011. Better still, this animation was supervised by Eric Goldberg, the animator responsible for Aladdin's Genie among other things, and who has spent the last ten years or more being ill-used; this little character is an extraordinarily gratifying return to form, with the bulbous muscular shape proving an excellent fit for Goldberg's particular tendencies and talents. This is that marriage of old and new forms that I was daydreaming about before, sadly present in only one character, but that character absolutely steals the movie every time he's given the chance; the fulsome pantomime, borrowing from the vocabulary of American cartoons without breaking the traditional aesthetic of the tattoos, is creative as hell, funny and charming, and beyond doubt the best thing in the movie.

The rest of Moana is perfectly well-animated, of course, though nothing about the character animation causes me to relax in my belief that Disney's 3-D animation lacks the spark that makes their corporate cousins at Pixar so special. The skin's not quite right, for one thing: Maui, in particular, seems to be covered in a sheath of tight-fitting vinyl rather than flesh that's connected to his bones with sinews and muscles, but I'd be hard-pressed to name a single human character whose textures feel exactly right. It is neither the first time nor the last, I am sure, that I'll have cause to complain that Disney would be much better off returning to 2-D animation. Character designer Randy Haycock, the day the film came out, published a cluster of pencil tests to his YouTube channel, and I'm really not in the least bit ashamed to say that I like every single one of them better than anything that ended up making it into the movie.

On the other hand, everything that's not a human being is pretty great: in particular, the film's water is an unabashed triumph of the medium. Moana is to a significant degree a film about the great vast wetness of the ocean, and perfecting its movement, its fluctuating transparency, and the physical properties of water's movement across solid surfaces was critical to the film's sense of reality, if we're to take for granted (as the studio self-evidently did) that realism was the overriding goal. The directors have gone so far as to declare that capturing the exact nature of water was the primary reason Moana was 3-D and not 2-D (which is of course a lie; it'll be many years, if ever, before Disney puts another 2-D movie into production after The Princess and the Frog's weak commercial performance). It is a beautiful ocean with beautiful lighting, and whatever shortcomings the character animation has, there's barely a frame of the movie that's not lovely for those reasons.

It's no masterpiece, but it's all extremely pleasant, and in Moana herself, the film boasts Disney's most interesting and complex protagonist in several years - easily since Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, maybe even since all the way back to Mulan. The complete lack of a romantic lead is alone enough to make this one of the studio's more interesting character arcs, even if it's pretty easy to predict that arc in detail before it starts. Of course, unexpected narrative twists haven't ever been one of Disney's goal, and in pursuing its clear-cut story so steadily and gracefully, aided by Mancina's lovely score as well as the outstanding ocean imagery, Moana has certainly the most satisfying overall narrative of any Disney film since Tangled. It even happily lacks the grating reveal of a surprise villain (or, for that matter, any villain at all, in another one of its exceedingly nice touches; a couple of threats, including some adorable coconut monsters, but no villain). I remain unconvinced that the "snarky contemporary attitude + plasticky animation" formula is where Disney should be, but if every couple of films that formula turns out a Moana, then things could be a lot worse.