The Walt Disney Animation Studio has been on a winning streak, and Moana continues that momentum. Beautiful to behold, especially with its lush South Seas setting, it relies on certain tried-and-true Disney tropes…but with a strong, likable heroine (performed by 14-year-old newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), a brawny adversary-turned-cohort (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), and fresh-sounding songs it’s sure to please any audience.
Given that it is tracing a traditional “heroine’s journey” I found it a bit too long, needlessly packed with incident. We could have reached the same satisfying conclusion much sooner without sacrificing the heart of the tale. But there is much to enjoy here: Johnson’s willingness to mock his macho image (and even sing), the Greek-chorus commentary from his animated tattoos, and the startling animation of the ocean itself as a character who helps Moana fulfill her destiny.
The story derives from myths and lore of Pacific Islanders; it is highly respectful but never weighed down by them. Like almost every contemporary Disney heroine, Moana disobeys her father (the chief of their dying island) by venturing beyond the reef to the larger world outside. She seeks to fulfill an ancient quest and reinvigorate her people for generations to come. In order to do so, she must make peace with a muscular, self-aggrandizing demi-god named Maui and accomplish a nearly-superhuman task.
Moana was directed (and cowritten) by Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements, who were responsible for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin,the underrated Hercules and The Princess and the Frog. Although they have never worked in the CG realm before they know what they’re doing in terms of story and character development and it shows. Many of Moana’s most consistent laughs come from a silly-looking chicken sidekick, while much of its warmth derives from Moana’s grandmother, an aged but wise and graceful islander whom others have written off as crazy.
With its mixture of hip-hop influence provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda and traditional South Seas sounds and rhythms from Opetaia Foa’i and collaborator Mark Mancina the score reflects the movie as a whole: a satisfying mélange of old-school and new-era Disney.