Legends? Check. Destiny? Check. Princess? Not exactly. Moana is a chieftain’s daughter, a far more proactive role than princess, which, from what I understand, is primarily comprised of sleeping, waltzing and the careless loss of priceless footwear. Moana saves the world barefoot—as I have learned from cartoons.
But before that, she lives peacefully with her parents and fellow tribespeople on the island of Motunui, where, to quote another Disney film, a problem-free philosophy reigns supreme. Moana’s father preaches the dangers of venturing beyond the reef, while she yearns to hit the open. After discovering that the island is being suffocated by some unknown force—fish are disappearing and coconuts are inedible—Moana has no choice but to leave the island and seek the aid of Maui, a legendary demigod who wields a fishhook and the ability to shapeshift into any animal. He also happens to have an ego the size of his torso—umpteen years on a deserted island, and he spends them crafting a statue of himself. Together, Moana and Maui must return an ancient artifact to an ancient dwelling—that usually works, right? Oh, yes, along for the journey is Heihei, Moana’s pet chicken, who is a few eggs short of a dozen, if you know what I mean.
It seems like at least once a year, I will get blown away by how far animation has come. I’m not talking about the individual strands of hair or the photorealistic water, I’m talking about the subtle, unconscious twitch in Moana’s face when she spots her grandmother dancing alone while everyone else chants and moves as one. This is a perfect illustration—pun intended—of how technology can invigorate story, rather than replace it. There’s some worry among the workforce these days concerning robots taking over jobs; it turns out actors might have the same problem.
This is the first 3-D animation film from Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors of “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” Nothing has been lost in translation, as the visuals are as rich and captivating as ever. Take the fleet of coconut pirates, who must draw their own facial expressions with chalk—how considerate, if you think about it. Or the enormous, glam-rock coconut crab, who sings like Bowie and cuts like a Bowie knife. Even Maui’s tattoos have personality, and this goes beyond flexing a bicep to make a hula girl dance. These flourishes of imagination maintain an otherwise conventional hero’s odyssey.
Broadway darling, Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote the songs, along with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. It would be a thankless task to compare the tracks to the Sherman brothers or Randy Newman, but they’re definitely better than the offerings of “Frozen,” which I found to be highly overrated. What is essentially Moana’s theme song, “How Far I’ll Go,” is a bit too “teenage girl singing on her windowsill” for my taste, but Dwayne Johnson belting out “You’re Welcome,” an anthem to narcissism, is a jaunty good time and definitely whistle-worthy.
In more ways than one, “Moana” is cookie-cutter Disney: you’ve got the spunky “princess,” the helicopter parents, the wise yet carefree senior-citizen, the animal sidekick—which the film pokes fun at—and a misunderstood evildoer. But what can I say? Lay on a thick coat of South Pacific culture, and it’s good as new.
3.5 out of 5 stars