113 min. | PG
“There must be more than this provincial life!” So goes the melancholy cry of the Disney princess. But it becomes so much bigger in Moana, another triumph for the company’s animation arm. Sweet, funny, exciting and moving, this transcendent experience brings to screen a pan-Polynesian cultural tradition that has been entirely absent from mainstream entertainment.
Here is a wonderful mythology of demons and demigods, and a creation story unlike any we’ve seen before. This ancient fantasy feels fresh because so few of us have been exposed to it before—European-flavored fantasies and Judeo-Christian creation myths get all the play. But Moana’s story, set thousands of years ago, also has much to say about us today.
The heroine isn’t just a girl longing to see new horizons. Yes, Moana is driven to find out what lies beyond the reefs off her South Pacific island paradise. What makes her special is how she will achieve this: She is chosen by the ocean itself as a reward for a kind act, to take on a quest involving a dangerous journey that could save her island and her people.
There is, in the grand Disney tradition, much soul-searching and lots of “be yourself” encouragement, but we’ve never seen anything like how that takes shape here via Moana (the voice of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho). She wonders why she dreams of doing something that her father, Chief Tui, insists cannot be attempted. But then, in an astonishing sequence, Moana experiences a vision of the past, of her people as daring explorers who crossed vast oceans, who were brave and intrepid, not confined by comfort. Moana embodies a spirit that has been denied for too long.
The adventure that Moana embarks upon requires her to find the trickster demigod Maui, who long ago stole the heart of the Earth mother, which caused bad things to happen and darkness to spread. The heart needs to be put back, and only Maui can do that with his magic. When Moana finds him, she discovers an arrogant jerk (the voice of Dwayne Johnson) with no desire to help humanity, certainly not after how ungrateful we are for everything he did for us—roped in the sun, set the tides, etc. She convinces him that it’s in his best interest to help her.
Disney’s incomparable way of combining goofiness with profundity reaches hugely entertaining new levels here. Maui’s animated tattoos, which act as his conscience, are characters in their own right. In a realm of monsters, Moana and Maui meet a spectacularly vain villain who is both a comic distraction and a cautionary tale.
That the animation is splendid goes without saying. And the songs, oh the songs! As a musical, this may be the best Disney entry since the heyday of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman in the 1990s, or at least since The Lion King, thanks to Samoan-New Zealander singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa’I, Mark Mancina (The Lion King); and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Dwayne Johnson gets a hilarious song. Turns out The Rock has a very pleasant singing voice.
Ultimately, Moana’s quest, the wrong she must put right, has an applicable message for us today: Do not piss off Mother Earth… but it’s never too late to fix the mess. If Moana becomes an inspiration for youngsters to become the green warriors of tomorrow, she may end up embodying the spirit not just of her Polynesian peoples but of all of us.