“You’re in a dress and you’ve got an animal sidekick. You’re a princess.” – The demigod Maui making an observation about the heroine of “Moana.”
Indeed, Moana is a princess in that she is next in line to become the ruler of a Polynesian island where the people live in harmony, with only one rule all must abide:
Never go beyond the reef.
But this is a princess with a lot of pep in her step. This is a princess who’s all about smashing unseen but very real ceilings.
Come on. We wouldn’t have much of a Disney animated movie if Moana obeyed that “Stay at Home!” rule and lived out the rest of her days overseeing the gathering of coconuts and the preparations of meals and the singing of songs about how nobody should ever leave the island, now would we?
Moana is not the old-fashioned Disney princess who twirls about the castle in fancy gowns and movie-star makeup, awaiting her prince or pining for her prince or hoping a prince will kiss her. (In fact, there’s a not a prince in sight in this movie.) She is a smart, independent, brave and adventurous explorer, she is a loyal friend, she has a deep and powerful love for her family, and she is a Girl Power role model swooping into theaters and onto the pop culture landscape at just the right time.
“Moana” probably won’t match the box office power of “Frozen,” and the signature song titled “How Far I’ll Go” most likely won’t match the ubiquitous earworm level of “Let It Go” — but it’ll be close in both departments.
This is a surefire box-office smash, bursting with gorgeous visuals, filled with inspirational messages, chock full of gentle and quite clever humor and nicely seasoned with a handful of catchy, hook-driven pop songs. It deserves an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho delivers a thoroughly charming performance as Moana, the 16-year-old princess who disobeys her father’s orders and sets sail “beyond the reef” on a quest to save her people. You see, Moana’s home island is dying, and according to the legend told by her Gramma Tala (Rachel House), a gleaming, green jewel “heart” must be returned to the faraway goddess Te Fiti in order for the ocean island and its people to once again thrive and prosper.
Gramma Tala tells Moana the ocean has chosen her specifically for this mission. The water itself sometimes becomes something of an actual character, with waves parting, Red Sea-style, to make way for Moana, and a plume of water occasionally interacting with her. (From the green-blue ocean waters to the costumes to island settings, the colors in “Moana” really pop off the screen.)
Accompanied by a really, really, really stupid chicken (an odd and not always winning choice for an animal sidekick), Moana sets sail into the vast, forbidding, stormy, treacherous seas. We segue into a Buddy Movie when Moana teams up with the preening, trash-talking, formerly powerful demigod Maui, who is voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is quite good with the comedic byplay and not terrible when called upon to sing.
Of course, Moana and Maui will start off bickering and then become great friends, and then they’ll suffer setbacks that threaten to fracture their relationship beyond repair, and then …
Well. You know how all that goes. It’s not as if “Moana” is going to surprise us with intricate plot twists. It’s all about the journey, of course.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker and the team of writers have crafted some fantastically entertaining set pieces, including a trippy, insanely creative and slightly disturbing musical number from Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), an enormous crab that covers itself in glimmering gold and diamonds and other treasures of the sea; a tribe of warriors clearly inspired by “Mad Max: Fury Road” (!); the animated tattoos on Maui that tell the story of his past and reflect on his current adventures with Moana, and a giant, beautiful, lush, green goddess who is also an actual island. This is an animated film in every sense of the word.
While the overall tone of “Moana” is uplifting, the story makes room for some pretty deep insights, as when Maui says Moana doesn’t know how to give up, and Moana says: No, she knows exactly how to give up, and she knows how easy it is to give up. Which of course makes it all the more rousing and exciting when Moana finds it within herself to not give up.
The songs from Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” superstardom) are lovely and bouncy, with some clearly influenced by island culture and others more in keeping with Disney traditional ballads. If your little one puts the soundtrack at the top of the home playlist, at least you’ll be driven crazy by a creative mix of musical genres.
Temuera Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger are terrific voicing Moana’s loving parents. Dwayne Johnson shines as Maui. First and foremost, though, is Auli’i Cravalho, winning the day and carrying the movie as the wonderful and quite lovable Moana.
Disney presents a film directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, co-directed by Chris Williams and Don Hall and written by Jared Bush. Rated PG (for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements). Running time: 96 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.