When Disney needs to break their animated princesses out of the comfort zone, they turn to directors Ron Clements and John Musker. Together the duo are responsible for some of Disney's most ethnically diverse films, such as Alaadin and The Princess and the Frog. Their latest, the South Pacific adventure Moana, picks up the baton and runs with it, introducing a strong, brave, and vulnerable Polynesian princess into a world full of demigods, lava demons, and Mad Max-inspired pirate coconuts. At a time when positive reinforcement of young women is more important than ever thanks to shifting political winds, a movie like Moana has the power to uplift, inspire, and entertain. The music's not bad, either.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho voices Moana, who falls into the tradition of Disney princesses looking to buck tradition and break their society's norms. She's the daughter of the island's chieftan, who keeps his people safe by never allowing anyone to go beyond the reef where dangers lurk. If some nasty creature doesn't get you, the untamed ocean waters will. But the headstrong Moana, who we quickly see grow from a curious tot to a defiant young woman, always has her eyes set outward, away from home. She's encouraged by her Gramma Tal (Hunt for the Wilderpeople's Rachel House), the island's crazy lady, who wants more for Moana than to simply grow to be the next chief. Her opportunity arises when a terrible darkness begins to take over the island. Chosen by the ocean itself (it turns out to be quite aggressive inserting itself into matters of destiny) Moana sets sail, along with her goofy chicken Hei-Hei (voiced by Alan Tudyk) to find the source of the plague and hopefully return home to tell the tale.
Her quest demands she find Maui, a Polynesian shapeshifter demigod with bulging muscles and tattoos just like the man who voices him, Dwayne Johnson. The boisterous, bragging Maui absconded with a glowing emerald jewel, The Heart Of Te Fiti, and unleashed the fiery demon that threatens to destroy all. With his massive fish hook, comically animated ink, and swaggering persona Maui is instantly the life of the party, and after some convincing (and a few near-death escapes) he becomes almost like a mentor to Moana, teaching her the ways of true heroism. But like her, he is also facing a crisis of confidence and an uncertain future. Lessons on overcoming fear and pursuing one's passions are a recurring theme, always sweeping in at just the right time like the motion of the tide.
While lush green and blues are so deep you want to dive right into them, the island rhythms crafted by Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda and composers Mark Mancina and New Zealand musician Opetaia Foa’i fill you with the hip-hop hula spirit. There are a handful of tracks that will be bouncing around in your head. Maui's introductory (and appropriately braggadocios) "You're Welcome" captures everything we need to know about the assertive demigod. Moana's “How Far I’ll Go" is the kind of swelling ode every top Disney princess deserves. But my personal favorite finds Jemaine Clement as the greedy and possessive giant crab Tamatoa, who loves anything "Shiny" as much as he loves his own reflection. He's definitely the movie's best villain as the final showdown with the lava monster comes up a bit short.
It's there during that glowing neon crustacean's sequence that we see just how far Clements and Musker have come with their first fully CGI-animated effort. We should be thankful Disney kept them around after the disastrous Treasure Planet in 2002, a film that was supposed to revive Disney's flagging animation studio. The duo have kept paying dividends and with Moana they have helped forge new territory. It's not enough for Moana to simply be fearless and tough, it's that she's strong enough enough to know when to rely on herself and when to lean on the support of those close to her. And thankfully that doesn't include some love interest for her to fall back on. The only love she has is for her people and her culture, and that makes Moana a character we all want to champion, and the film one we'll want to see again and again.
Rating: 4 out of 5