At a time when diversity and girl power are in particular need of celebration, Walt Disney Pictures’ Moana is an especially welcome arrival on the pop-culture scene. Not to freight it with too much sociopolitical baggage—in a perfect world, its bold heroine and immersion in a foreign culture would be beside the point—but it’s easy to appreciate the accidental timing of its release just as higher authorities seem aligned against women and minorities. And in that sense, it’s no surprise that this film comes from directors John Musker and Ron Clements, whose last feature, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, presented Disney’s first African-American heroine.
That reading aside, Moana is also a splendid entertainment, one that honors the traditions of the “princess film” while taking it in fresh directions. Musker and Clements launched the new golden age of Disney animation with The Little Mermaid before shaking things up with the freewheeling Aladdin, and the DNA of both is very much present in Moana. Like Ariel and her ilk, teenaged Moana (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho) yearns for a life beyond her immediate environment, in this case the self-sufficient Polynesian island community of Motunui. She’s being groomed by her father Tui (Temuera Morrison) to succeed him as chief, yet she wants to strike out and explore what adventure might await beyond the surrounding reef—past which she is repeatedly told not to venture.
The opening act, and first two songs, rather bluntly establish Moana’s situation and conflict. The exposition goes down easy, though, since her expressive animation and vocalization immediately engage our sympathies. Only 14 when she performed Moana, having never done any film acting before, Cravalho is remarkably self-possessed, with a bold singing voice—perfect for the role. In addition, the tunes (by the harmonious trio of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Disney regular Mark Mancina and Samoan singer Opetaia Foa’i) are stirring, and the gorgeous visuals make Motunui an inviting place to dwell indeed. Lush, colorful and intricately detailed, the CG imagery is captivating throughout the movie, from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the sea. The ocean becomes a principal setting once Moana, with the encouragement of her Gramma Tala (Rachel House) and spurred by growing ecological hardships, departs Motunui on a quest that can save her people.
This involves returning a magical stone to its original resting place on the distant island of Te Fiti, and that involves securing the help of the one who stole it, a demigod named Maui who has since lost his magical abilities but none of his swagger. As perfectly voiced by Dwayne Johnson, he gives the movie a jolt of vainglorious energy that both contrasts with and complements Moana’s earnestness. Johnson can sing, too, and his introductory “You’re Welcome” number is rousing and cleverly animated; this is one of many places where the tattoos covering Maui’s massive body, most notably a tiny avatar of himself, come to life to visually comment on his words and actions.
Needless to say, Moana and Maui don’t get along at first, and though they warm to each other as the adventure continues, their relationship becomes one of mutual admiration rather than amorous affection. Unlike Brave or Frozen, Moana doesn’t see the need to set up the possibility of romance only to subvert it; Moana and Maui simply have other things on their minds. There are a few nudges of self-aware humor aimed at the princess formula, though some of the film’s best comedy derives from a couple of supporting characters. Moana’s pet chicken Heihei (clucks by Alan Tudyk), a multicolored goofball, stows away on her voyage to provide slapstick laughs, and Jemaine Clement steals a portion of the movie’s midsection in a part whose particulars won’t be revealed here, so as not to spoil the fun—though viewers are advised to stay till after the final credits roll, when he gets a reprise.
Scripted by Jared Bush (who’s having a pretty good year, having also co-scripted Zootopia), Moana contains a good share of exciting action setpieces—one of which, an attack by a very eccentric band of pirates, is hilarious even as it thrills. What resonates strongest as the story concludes, however, is its heart—as embodied by its title character, who forges her own path among both her people and her Disney sisterhood.