Disney continues its winning streak with this big-hearted musical about a young woman fighting to protect her community.
This charming animated family movie about a teenage Polynesian girl fighting to save her Pacific island’s future feels like business as usual for Disney in many ways: There’s a strong young female lead, catchy show tunes, lush landscapes and talking animals—a hermit crab with a fondness for trinkets almost steals the film.
But this tale from the directors of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid also feels like progress. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is set to take over from her father as the leader of an island community way back in the past (their beliefs are based around sea-travel and the island’s creation myth). When the plants on Moana’s island start to wither, though, the ocean chooses this 16-year-old to defy her father’s orders and set sail in search of muscled demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, self-mocking and funny), who can help her secure her people’s future. There’s not a prince or potential husband in sight; Moana’s future is entirely defined by her leadership and ability to fend off the mansplaining know-it-all Maui. As messages go, we’ll take it.
The story is a fairly simple quest as Moana takes to the open water in uneasy cahoots with macho Maui. His animated tattoos are among the film’s visual highlights, alongside the azure waters lapping the sand. There are some belters on the soundtrack, a few of them courtesy of Hamilton's man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda. But the most memorable is the playful "Shiny," the crab’s magpie-like ode to glittering things, sung by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.
Late in the film, Moana serves up a memorable foe, Te Ka, a smoldering giant made of lava. But the film’s strongest emotional pull comes in the form of Moana’s relationship with her elderly grandmother and, when she dies, the memory of her. Along with the film’s hippy-ish musings on the relationship between humans and the elements, it gives the film a moving, supernatural touch.