9 out of 10
Auli’i Cravalho – Moana (voice)
Dwayne Johnson – Maui (voice)
Rachel House – Gramma Tala (voice)
Temuera Morrison – Chief Tui (voice)
Jemaine Clement – Tamatoa (voice)
Nicole Scherzinger – Sina (voice)
Alan Tudyk – Heihei / Villager #3 (voice)
Oscar Kightley – Fisherman (voice)
Troy Polamalu – Villager #1 (voice)
Puanani Cravalho – Villager #2 (voice)
Louise Bush – Toddler Moana (voice)
Directed by Ron Clements, John Husker, Don Hall, and Chris Williams
Moana is yet another knock-it-out-of-the-park animated classic from Disney, and at this point it feels effortless. It wasn’t always this way. Those of us who lived in the 1970s and early 1980s remember when their animated and family division was mostly a vast wasteland, too reliant on the films of the past and not looking forward to a changing world, with different cultures, ideas, and new kinds of heroes. Disney may be an economic juggernaut, but the goals of their animation division remain steadfast and true – they want to own real estate in our hearts, and make genuinely great movies. Everything comes in waves, of course (pun intended), and eventually Disney Studios, Pixar, and Marvel Studios will find struggles, but right now? Disney is making the best mainstream films for mass audiences, and Moana is no exception.
Moana is also unapologetically a musical, full of the traditions of the great animated musicals of the past. There’s a funny, character-driven song along the lines of Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me” (“You’re Welcome,” wonderfully sung by Dwayne Johnson), a stirring song of yearning by the heroine like Beauty and the Beast’s “Belle” (“How Far I’ll Go,” sung by Auli’I Cravalho), and even a villain’s anthem like The Lion King’s “Be Prepared” (“Shiny” by Jemaine Clement). Much of Moana follows the Disney template but puts so much heart, humor, and joy in it that we don’t mind. The songs are written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’I, and Mark Mancina, and if Miranda’s not careful, he may be one of the very, very few to wind up with a PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) for his work here. All the songs are strong, and full of Polynesian sounds and melodies.
In ancient times, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the Heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of the world. But Maui lost it, and chased by the dark god Te Ka, disappeared from the ocean. Centuries later, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) struggles with her place on her island and with her father Chief tui (Temera Morrison). Tui wants Moana to stay close to home; her village needs her leadership and her talents, but Moana yearns to explore the deep blue ocean beyond the reef that surrounds her home. But Te Ka is coming; crops are failing and the fish are all gone. With the urging of Moana’s Gramma Tala (Rachel House), Moana leaves her home to find Maui and get him to return the Heart of Te Fiti to her ancient home before the darkness of Te Ka consumes all the world.
Moana is visually striking, full of rich colors and landscapes. I loved how the sea itself becomes a character in Moana, mischievous but kind and helpful, and the relationship between Moana and Maui is funny, heartwarming, and grows to mutual respect. Dwayne Johnson brings his considerable charm and charisma to Maui, and he’s actually got a very good singing voice. More importantly, Maui isn’t Moana’s superior in any way. They are equals. Auli’I Cravalho has an incredible voice (Disney auditioned hundreds of girls for the role), and holds her own with Johnson. All of the voice cast is terrific, including Flight of the Conchord‘s Jemaine Clement, playing Tamatoa, a devious treasure-collecting crab, and channeling David Bowie in a raucous and glam-inspired song, and having a great time singing it. The animators seem to be having fun as well; an action sequence featuring what appears to be a tribe of sentient coconuts is riveting, funny, and thrilling.
At its best, Moana is full of that Disney starstuff, that ethereal sense of wonder and beauty that seems to be their trademark. Moana is culturally inviting and not exclusive. There’s something for everyone in Moana. Moana is a strong character for girls; smart, self-sufficient, full of resolve and courage, and not reliant on anyone to save her but herself. Maui is hilarious, full of braggadocio, but also respectful and impressed with Moana’s skills. There is real adventure in Moana, respectful of the Polynesian culture but always looking forward to the future. The magic of Disney is in every frame, and audiences will likely be swept away in the themes and the majesty of it all. We are explorers of our world, Moana says, and we must always look at the edge of our frontiers and go beyond. The strength of Moana is in the knowledge that there are no limits except the ones we impose on ourselves. Moana is a terrific addition to the Disney animated roster, and it will capture the hearts and imaginations of families everywhere this holiday season. It certainly captured mine.