Moana (Cravalho, her debut) is the chief’s daughter within her tribe on the New Zealand island of Motunui. Unlike most girls in her Maori village, she is destined to be the chief of her tribe herself one day, pushing them to further greatness in that insular community. Traveling beyond their surrounding reef is forbidden, but a lack of fish and disease in the plant life caused by a curse has Moana exercising her leadership skills by beyond the horizon to find enough food for all of them. In order to reverse the curse, her grand ocean quest is to find the source of their woes by enlisting the services of a Maui (Johnson, Central Intelligence), a shape-shifter demigod who must return a long-lost magical emerald stone he once stole that changed the world for the worse.
Disney continues to expand their explorations toward world culture with a jaunt to Polynesian society in Moana, explored in the past with Lilo & Stitch, and ends up crafting one of their best efforts in recent years. Steeped in the culture of the region, the island paradise of Moana and her people is full of rich flavor and possibilities that are rarely, if ever, captured on the big screen in a movie that will appeal to all ages and all walks of life. It makes the possible end to such beauty especially heartbreaking, not only for the people, but because of how gorgeous, happy, and free from worry those locales seem.
A main highlight of Moana comes with its use of songs to capture the mood of the scenes and reveal additional aspects of the various personalities to be found within the epic storyline. In addition to the styles of Disney regular Mark Mancina (Planes: Fire and Rescue), songs from the red-hot Lin-Manuel Miranda (who catapulted the stage musical “Hamilton” to record-breaking Broadway success) pepper the film with catchy and topical tunes (Moana’s theme, “How Far I’ll Go”, is the supreme standout), interspersed with more relevant ditties from South Pacific talent, Opetaia Foa’i.
Not to be outdone, Moana‘s visuals are jaw dropping, with phenomenal character designs, stunning conceptual art and richly presented seascapes, mesmerizing editing techniques, and a building momentum to carry us from beginning to end enrapt into its story without missing a beat. The film does experience an occasional minor lull or two with side jaunts meant to draw out more musical or comedic moments (the expended David Bowie-inspired sequence featuring the vocals of Jemain Clement (The BFG) as a massive crab named Tamatoa may be a highlight for some — especially for those who enjoyed his music stylings in “Flight of the Conchords” — but I found it to be an overly lengthy diversion). But that’s but one of many set pieces, most of them delightful, such as a battle sequence with miniature pirates who wear war-painted coconut shells as shielding.
Of special interest are the tattoos that Maui sports, which are really like mini-animated movies themselves, as we watch the hand-drawn representations of people on his chest and elsewhere comes to life to talk to Maui about various things along the odyssey, usually offering a conscientious take to counteract his tendency for egotism and selfishness.
Bolstered by actors of actual Pacific island descent in its main roles, Hawaii’s Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson (of Samoan heritage), their respective personalities bring wonderful life to their roles of Moana and Maui, respectively. Their interactions and banter draw forth some of the best comedic and heartfelt moments that Moana has to offer. The supporting characters all have their moments to shine as well, and even the ocean itself becomes a character out to assist Moana in her quest to bring health and harmony back to that region of the world.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who brought us such Disney musical animated feature classics like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, there is a wonderful flow to the film that feels almost effortless, despite the fact that there are thousands of people involved in keeping all of the multitudinous pieces of this film together narratively, thematically, and tonally. Although it adheres to the traditional formulas for Disney heroes, there is a sense of freshness that permeates Moana, which does deviate from Princess formula in a few significant ways, including the lack of any sort of romance in the storyline, as well as having a story not inspired by or lifted from other source material.
With very appealing characters, beautiful animation, toe-tapping music, and enough changes in scenery to keep picking up the pace just when the story seems to slow down, Moana is a mythical and marvelous all-ages film experience that is a must-see for those who love the Disney brand, as well as for those just looking for something to captivate the minds and hearts of the entire family. It’s not a laugh riot, but it is effervescent, amusing and entertaining in a broadly likeable way, offering just about every audience something to chuckle about or admire within the context of the grand adventure.
As Moana seems a sure-shot to be a popular addition to the voluminous Disney Princess lineup, she will hold her own as far as fan favorites. It’s one of the biggest delights of 2016.
Qwipster’s rating: A+
MPAA Rated: PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
Director: Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, Chris Williams
Screenplay: Jared Bush