Arriving just in time for the holidays, ‘Moana’ is a Disney princess tale hidden within a thrilling adventure picture with a spattering of fantastic songs to make it all go down smoothly. If you aren’t charmed by this movie, you might want to find out what’s hiding in your chest where your heart should be.
The title character (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is technically a Disney princess of sorts. She’s the daughter of a tribal leader on an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean and is set to inherit everything in their tribe. It’s a nice home, but the ocean calls to Moana – quite literally. It parts for her and carries her, urging her to seek adventure in the outside world. Unfortunately, Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison) suffered a traumatic event on those waves in his youth and won’t dare let his daughter explore. But times become harsh and soon Moana is forced to venture out in search of salvation. She must find a demigod named Maui (Dwayne “Still the Rock” Johnson) and return a stolen jewel to the heart of a goddess.
The story is rooted in ancient myth, but plays as grand adventure. Despite the classical Disney trappings, the quartet of directors (some of whom have been around the studio since ‘The Little Mermaid’) embrace the action blockbuster potential of their tale with open arms. The sweeping spectacle here can top most comic book movies. The huge monsters and epic battles with grand heroics are breathtaking and applause-worthy. It’s definitely more of an action-focused story than the studio normally delivers, but is so gorgeously designed and executed that you’d think this was Disney’s specialty. The designs retain the usual Disney smoothness and cuteness, yet are stretched into colorful, surreal, and even slightly scary extremes in surprising ways. It’s a real rush.
The characters are also standouts. Cravalho’s Moana cuts a strong and inspiring pose while still feeling like an actual young girl. Dwayne Johnson proves to be just as charmingly self-effacing, goofy and relentlessly charismatic even when reduced to a vocal performance playing a character as much comic relief as hero. Mercifully, the film has no forced love story. The princess is the hero of her own story. Around the edges, folks like Jemaine Clement create amusingly eccentric and memorable supporting characters to keep the charm factor high. They all sing as well, which might sound like it clashes with the swashbuckling adventure and fantasy, but somehow fits. The team of Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda provide a surprisingly diverse range of musical and lyrical styles to create a musical bedrock as unconventional as the movie. It all fits together, even if the elements seem too different to possibly click.
‘Moana’ is a real charmer of a movie that should slot comfortably into the Disney canon. It’s beautifully made, breathlessly entertaining, flawlessly performed, and filled with enough heart to make the whole family weep. This is exactly the sort of thing that folks should expect from the studio. The only mild disappointment is that, despite the unique setting, design, music and action, this is ultimately a classical Disney narrative and is as predictable as it is satisfying. After the rather brilliant and even insightful work the studio did with ‘Zootopia’ this year, this feels like a mild step back. Still, that’s merely nitpicking what is otherwise a glorious bit of feel-good entertainment coming during a commercial and political season that needs exactly that.