Disney’s latest animated spectacular is Moana, a princess musical and a rollicking fantasy adventure. This is a refreshing change of pace, for it finds the legendary animation studio back in its comfort zone, willing to reappropriate the modes which made it famous for new purposes. It’s a familiar comfort and exciting transformation in the same way The Little Mermaid gave their princesses Broadway brio, Mulan brought action-movie heroism attacking gender norms, and Frozen challenged the primacy of fairy tale romantic love with an ode to sisterly connection. (Their Zootopia from earlier this year brought similarly absorbing excitement to their other staple – the talking animal picture.) Moana delivers everything you’d want from a Disney movie – a host of terrific songs, memorable characters, sympathetic motivations, beautiful images – with the willingness to tweak the formula. It has a stirring “I want” number, and not a hint of romance. It has cute comic relief animal sidekicks, and energetic high-stakes allegorical action sequences without a standard villain. Most moving in this concoction is its tight fit with its undertow theme about respecting tradition by bravely making your own path.
Set on a lushly imagined Pacific island, the film finds a tight-knit tribe where everyone has his or her place. It’s an idyllic society, close and loving, self-sufficient, tranquil, tropical. The chief (Temuera Morrison) proudly looks back over the generations, keeping his people safe by insisting they never travel past the reef. That’s why he’s so troubled by his precocious daughter (Auli’i Cravalho) as she’s drawn to the ocean. Her wise grandmother (Rachel House) – the village crazy lady, the old woman happily admits – mischievously encourages the young girl’s curiosity and connection, especially since a magical moment found the toddler mysteriously able to commune with the waves’ spirit, bending it to her will, cooperating with the current. Alas, such magic has no place in her father’s plans, which see her more as a practical, down-to-earth successor ready to deal with the daily business of running the tribe. But even all these years later, there’s the open ocean calling to her, some essential part of her inner being that must be explored.
She’s driven to do so by encroaching ecological disaster. Centuries earlier the demigod Maui misguidedly stole the heart of the sea’s living essence, letting loose a slowly seeping poison killing off islands’ natural resources. This environmental disaster is approaching Moana’s village, and the elders would prefer to ignore the warning signs – fish vanishing, crops rotting on the vine. Motivated by her grandmother’s urging, and the discovery of her people’s forgotten tradition of exploration on sturdy long-distance sailing ships, it’s up to this teenager to act. She needs to keep her world safe by taking a risk, shaking off recent tradition to tap into an even older way of life. She finds her way to the exiled Maui on a distant island, but he’s not exactly interested in helping her. Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, he’s dripping in charming gruffness and ironic tough guy ego hiding core softness. As he joins the quest as a companion and foil for our hero, his jocular energy spun on a modern sensibility aligns him with The Genie and Mushu in the Disney Renaissance tradition of star-power-driven postmodern magic aide.
With a musical setup, Moana is off on an adventure, encountering a Harryhausen mix of creatures: a giant shiny crab who sings like Bowie, tiny wordless coconut-clad pirates on massive ships, and a towering lava monster. The action swoops around like a Kung Fu Panda, deftly weaving through clockwork clever choreography. But it’s not just manic visual noise. It’s always grounded in the emotional journey of its deeply sympathetic – and traditional wide-eyed, fresh-faced, Disney-looking – lead. There’s a good mix. She’s strong, confident, determined, stubborn, and charming, driven to help but prone to doubts. Her rascally trickster demigod helper is a fine snarky counterbalance, always wavering as to whether or not he’ll be more help than hindrance. (The dumb chicken clucking along at their feet is a nice silly grace note who never outstays her welcome.) There’s sparkling personality in the voice performances, a fine quipping banter cut with real sentiment. The earnest underpinnings are underlined with a Miyazaki-like respect for the majesty of the natural world, the movie’s supernatural sights and warm, unexpectedly quiet conclusions imbued with a genuine feeling of magic and nature, ecology and spells fluidly mingling the humane and divine.
This movie is what Disney does best: beautifully rendered crowd-pleasing all-ages entertainment. It moves quickly, dancing easily between light comedy, grand adventure, soaring music, and deeply-felt poignant turns. Songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda flow with his witty rhymes and emotional clarity, their melodies forming the backbone of Mark Mancina’s score. The CG animation is as striking as the medium allows (a rare feat, when so many competitors churn out plastic-looking garbage). Sunlight dapples through waves, sand has grit, water has heft, hair drips and flows, abundant green jungles move with leafy ripples. Best of all, the characters come to life with a lively glow in their skin, lit from within by real presence, so smooth and tactile you could almost reach out and caress it. (That it’s all that, but somehow still vibrantly cartoony is the best feature. It’s unreal in a most pleasing way.) Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (Mermaid, Hercules) with Don Hall and Chris Williams (Big Hero 6), it plays every expected beat in big-hearted Disney musical tradition, and breathes with welcome, respectful cultural specificity and fresh voices. A moving story of respecting the past while finding your own future, Moana practices what it preaches, introducing a lovable young hero in the process.