Disney animated films have always been great springboards, introducing audiences of all ages to loosely adapted stories they can later approach more deeply. In many instances, the features are also sanitized versions of fairy tales, and the source material is too dark for the younger viewers. Moana, the latest from the studio, is not so much a first taste of something more maturely presented previously, but it does contain subject matter, narrative tropes, and homages to cinema of the past that are best realized and experienced at an older age.
Below are a dozen (plus) titles that are directly referenced, officially acknowledged as influences, or similar or relevant in some significant way. They range from other family friendly picks to violent R-rated fare, so the kids shouldn’t run out and rent all of these at once. Instead, I’ve put them in order of age-appropriateness and suggest that for the youngest fans each be watched over a period of 12 years leading up to movie adulthood (17 in the US), ratings-wise. As the demigod Maui would say, you’re welcome!
The Little Mermaid (Ages 6 and up)
Moana has elements of seemingly every Disney animated classic that came before, but The Little Mermaid is certainly the most apparent. The post-credits stinger has an actual reference to the crab character Sebastian, and the new movie’s primary co-directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, also helmed the 1989 Hans Christian Andersen adaptation. Both movies follow a young woman, daughter of a ruler, who wants to venture out beyond the limits of her home turf. The obvious distinction is that one wants to leave the ocean for the land and the other wants to leave the land for the ocean.
The Wizard of Oz (Ages 7 and up)
In another list of movies to watch, I recommend the unpopular 1925 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books. Now here’s the classic we all know and love. Does it need more attention here? Not necessarily, but it has been mentioned by the filmmakers as a major influence, and surely a lot of little Moana fans won’t have seen it beforehand. The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale is one of the earliest and greatest of film’s adventure heroines, going back to the dawn of cinema, and Judy Garland’s version of the character in the 1939 take is an inspiring mix of intelligence, open-mindedness, and bravery. And the disappointment of the Wizard compared to his reputation is akin to that of Maui when we first meet him in Moana.
Kubo and the Two Strings (Ages 8 and up)
While Moana understandably reminds us of other Disney movies, the animated feature it most resembles is, coincidentally, another 2016 release from another studio. Laika’s latest stop-motion effort is an original story about a young protagonist who takes to the sea with help from a maternal figure reincarnated as an animal and a supposed legendary hero who also has a miniature version of himself along for the ride. Sound familiar? There’s also a scene where the good guys have to retrieve a special weapon from a cave guarded by a monster. And in the end, the main villain is not as evil as he seems.
Mysterious Island (Ages 9 and up)
Not to be confused with Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which stars Moana’s Dwayne Johnson, this earlier (but not first) live-action take on the same Jules Verne novel should continue to cultivate an appreciation for stop-motion animation via Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work. And this 1961 film features a land of monsters including a giant crab, whose fate is quite delicious. From there, a good area of film history to check out is the Toho monster movies, particularly the Godzilla series, which includes the 1966 installment Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (aka Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster), where the King of the Monsters battles a giant crustacean creature.
Duck Soup (Ages 10 and up)
Always looking for a good excuse to recommend the Marx Brothers, especially to young viewers, I’m following a recent pick of Animal Crackers with this their greatest feature, from 1933. And again, it’s mostly for something Harpo does that it’s being recognized. Like Maui, the silent Marx sibling shows off some tattoos that help to provide background on his character. He has less body art, but some of it does come to life. For one, he animates the tattoo himself to make it look like it’s dancing. Another involves a clever visual effect for its time. Watch the scene here:
Moana (Ages 11 and up)
Long before Disney’s movie of the same name —90 years earlier, in fact – the title belonged primarily to this feature, which has the distinction of being the first film ever referred to as a “documentary” (in a review by John Grierson). Directed by Robert J. Flaherty and his wife, Frances Hubbard Flaherty, the mostly scripted and dramatized nonfiction work was meant to be a South Pacific copycat of the former’s highly successful Nanook of the North – this time focused on Polynesian people instead of Inuit. Again, the idea is a cinematic anthropological document of a particular culture’s traditions, most of them obsolete by the time of filming. But like the new animated film, the 1926 doc classic similarly follows a young character named Moana (here a boy) as he comes of age.
The originally silent feature was re-released in 1980 as the somewhat self-explanatory Moana With Sound, and both versions are separately worth seeing. Also essential viewing is the 1931 F.W. Murnau film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, which was written and produced by Robert J. Flaherty and is much more clearly a work of fiction. For something more “real,” there’s the 1952 New Zealand doc short The Legend of the Whanganui River, which shares the Maori myth of how the titular body of water was carved out by the god Pukeonaki. Watch the nine-minute film here.
Kon-Tiki (Ages 12 and up)
Another relevant documentary was released in 1950 and is admittedly even more of a Western-filtered take on Polynesian tradition and history but is still great for what it is. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl directed this feature, which captures his own rafting adventure from a few years earlier, his mission being to sail from South America to the Polynesian islands using the same sort of small craft that the settlers who would become the region’s indigenous people had used hundreds of years ago. The Oscar-winning doc was remade as a dramatic feature in 2012, and that Oscar-nominated version is also worth seeing, though nothing beats the real thing.
Whale Rider (Ages 13 and up)
Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress at the age of 13 for her performance in this empowering 2002 film about a Maori girl who wishes to be the next chief of her tribe. Unlike the title character in Moana, she isn’t initially permitted to take over as ruler, let alone expected to. Chiefs are supposed to be male descendants of Paikea, a mythological legend known as the whale rider. He is said to have ridden on the back of a whale (who may have been a shapeshifting creature in disguise) to bring the Maori from Polynesia to New Zealand. Can you guess how the movie ends? Regardless, it’s a unique and beautiful, must-see coming-of-age drama.
True Grit (Ages 14 and up)
Hailee Steinfeld also received an Oscar nomination at a young age, hers for supporting performance, in the 2011 remake of this 1969 Western, which the filmmakers have also noted as an intentional reference. Like Moana and Maui, the road-less road movie pairs up a teen girl and an old, slightly washed up male hero, and of course they’re a mismatched duo. Kim Darby is the younger of the two in the original, pit against an aging John Wayne (Jeff Bridges is Steinfeld’s counterpart in the later movie), whom she recruits to make amends for something terrible that’s happened to her universe – in Moana it’s restoring the heart to a goddess to keep the whole world from going dark (all of this actually the fault of her partner), while in this it’s killing the man who murdered her father. Either version of True Grit will do, but the remake is arguably better. Also: Leon, aka The Professional.
The Abyss (Ages 15 and up)
Want another movie where water appears to be sentient and takes a shape that denies the laws of physics? James Cameron’s 1989 follow-up to Aliens arrived in theaters just a few months before The Little Mermaid and involves both extraterrestrial beings and the depths of the ocean. There are no high-fives from the water, as there are in Moana, though you could possibly consider the famous tidal wave deleted scene to be sort of like a giant high-five to the world. Or maybe not. In any event, there will be no director more appropriate for the eventual live-action remake of Moana than Cameron.
Sunshine (Ages 16 and up)
Moana is sort of like a sci-fi movie, in which a crew of characters leaves the world they know for a deadly mission into the great unknown to accomplish some fiery task that will keep their home from dying. But it’s an adventure at sea, not space. If it were the latter, it’d look a lot like Danny Boyle’s 2007 effort in which a crew of characters leave the planet for a deadly mission to nuke the Sun to make it shine on Earth and make it green again. In Moana, one of the crew members was responsible for the catastrophe to begin with, while in Sunshine, it was just the way of the universe doing its thing.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Ages 17 and up)
The most widely circulated admission of influence from the Moana directors is of this 2015 sci-fi favorite. They claim the wild, coconut-masked pygmy pirates known as the Kakamora are an homage to the baddies of the Mad Max sequel, complete with instrumental accompaniment on one of the vessels. But while it’s not necessary, you should go back to the other installments of the series, as well as the 1995 knockoff Waterworld, which bears more similarity for its ocean setting and the types of vehicles involved. But Fury Road does also have both a male and female in the lead, where the guy isn’t quite as active or significant or useful as the woman.