Moana 2? Toy Story 5? Disney is getting desperate

Ocean smoothing: The titular hero of ‘Moana’, voiced by Auliʻi Cravalho  (Shutterstock)
Ocean smoothing: The titular hero of ‘Moana’, voiced by Auliʻi Cravalho (Shutterstock)

You might have assumed it would be a bigger whoop. When Disney announced, on Wednesday, that the hit children’s animation Moana will be getting a theatrically released sequel, it felt less like a victory lap than an act of desperation. The original film, a musical seafaring adventure starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a puckish demigod, was an unmitigated hit with audiences and critics. The problem is that Moana 2, out this November, had already been announced back in 2020 – only as a straight-to-streaming miniseries. The film will, it seems, be a sort of stitched-together re-edit of this original project. And Disney didn’t stop there: studio boss Bob Iger also announced release dates for Toy Story 5, Zootopia 2 and Frozen 3, among others.

So relentless is the churn of franchise mania that casual viewers seem unable to work up much enthusiasm. There’s simply too much stuff. Disney’s animation wing has had its ups and downs before, of course. The so-called golden age of animation in the 1930s and 1940s gave way to a slow, decades-long decline. Then came the Disney renaissance of the late Eighties and Nineties, spearheaded by filmmaking duo John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid; Aladdin; Hercules). After this, there was the acquisition of Pixar and a pivot towards computer-generated animation. It’s hard to deny that Disney is now in the midst of another slump: the company has become strung out on sequels and franchises, fruitlessly chasing an old and familiar high.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to Disney animation. The company’s live-action slate is just as turgidly backward-looking, from the identikit Marvel blockbusters to the myriad CGI-slathered “live-action” remakes of its most popular animations. (A live-action Moana remake, separate from the sequel but still bringing back Johnson, is also in the works.) But there’s a particular sweatiness to the idea of Moana 2. Significantly, Musker and Clements are absent from the sequel, having parted ways with Disney after four decades; missing, too, is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton songwriter responsible for much of the original’s musical effervescence.

Amid the glut of franchise revisits, Disney has released a handful of original releases over the past few years – including the Pixar films Turning Red, Luca, Soul and Elemental, and the non-Pixar animations Encanto and Wish. If there’s one big positive to take from Moana2’s reimaging as a feature film, it’s that Disney honchos seem to be losing faith – to some extent, at least – in the inherent wisdom of the straight-to-streaming business model. Depriving films such as Encanto of a cinematic release is a losing gambit for everyone involved. Audiences miss out on the chance to experience these films in the immersive way they were intended. Cinemas miss out on the revenue. Disney misses out on the box office earnings, typically in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And all for the sake of what? The supposed reputational allure of exclusivity.

A film like Elemental – an animated romcom set in a city where the inhabitants are the physiological embodiments of fire, water, air or shrubbery – offered compelling evidence for the value of a theatrical release. When Elemental first hit screens in 2021, it was deemed a flop. Week after week went by, though, and it kept making money; ultimately the Pixar animation made half a billion dollars. Wish, Disney’s fantasy fable from last year, was less of a success story, but still managed over $200m, despite pretty crummy reviews. That Disney are now sticking their straight-to-streaming pandemic Pixar releases into cinemas after the fact testifies to a dawning scepticism about the long-term viability of the streaming model. To this extent, the Moana news can only be a good sign.

And yet, staring down the barrel of the remorseless sequel-making machine, I find it hard to feel too rosy. Moana 2 and Toy Story 5 are the symptoms of a company that has chased the “safe option” down a dead-end alley, that has spent years picking away at itself until there’s nothing left but bone. With that said, I should add that I am not the target audience for these children’s films. Of course, kids are not going to be as jaded to the corporate cynicism of these sequels as an adult with properly developed critical-thinking skills. But children deserve originality and invention. Consciously or not, they crave it too. If Disney isn’t going to give it to them, someone else will have to.

‘Moana 2’ is out in cinemas later this year