"Moana" is a warm family entertainment, and not just because it is set among the sun and sand of the South Pacific. Leading with its beating heart and imparting a valuable message about the importance of following one's own path, the film, directed by Ron Clements & John Musker (2009's "The Princess and the Frog
") and co-directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams (2014's "Big Hero 6
"), proves comforting and entirely inoffensive. Arriving during the same calendar year as two superior fellow computer-animated releases from Disney, "Zootopia
" and "Finding Dory
," it also proves slighter and exceedingly traditional. "Moana" reminds of countless past Mouse House musicals, from 1989's "The Little Mermaid" to 1995's "Pocahontas" to 2013's "Frozen
," and on those terms it is decidedly commonplace, likable but without those extra shots of imagination and inspiration that turn a good picture into something truly special.
Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) has grown up on the Polynesian island of Motunui, raised by chief father Tui (Temuera Morrison) to be a natural leader for their village. When their home's natural resources begin to die, she is certain the key to restoration lies in seeking the help of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a mythical shape-shifting demigod of the wind and sea, and locating an ancient gem known as the Heart of Te Fiti. Motivated by the guidance of her wise Gramma Tala (Rachel House), Moana defies the orders of her father to not travel beyond the barrier reef, setting sail on an eye-opening journey that may just change the course of her lifeand that of her peopleforever.
Disney is incapable of producing a bad-looking animated film, and so it comes as no surprise "Moana" is quite the looker. The tropical oceanic locales are bursting with bright colors, plentiful details, and, in regard to the open seas themselves, stunning photorealism. Moana is an endearing heroine, feisty in spirit and true to herself. Her close relationship with her Gramma in the early scenes lives on even after they are apart, poignantly guiding her on her mission. The original songs, written by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina and "Hamilton" creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, are pleasingly at one with the material, none more so than Moana's own recurring anthem, "How Far I'll Go." This tune appears three times throughout (four if you count the end credits), but it is so wonderfully stirring it never threatens to overstay its welcome.
The screenplay by Jared Bush (2016's "Zootopia
") is of a standard ilk, gentle and well-meaning but, beat for beat, rather predictable. The middle act slows down enough for one to begin making a mental list of the ways in which the narrative could be improved. Moana and Maui, who is positioned as this film's rather disposable version of Robin Williams' genie from "Aladdin," spend too much time sailing around without much in the way of action or conflict occurring until the climax. The lack of a proper villain until the appearance of the finale's giant Lava Monster results in a story deficient in urgency or immediate threat. Fortunately, there are other pleasures to be had. The aforementioned music is wonderful, the scenery divine, and a set-piece involving the humongous, hoarding, blinged-out crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) is deliciously conceived.
The star of "Moana" is, naturally, its title heroine, and credit Disney for imagining an independent "princess" who has no love interest and never once lets a man (dashing or otherwise) define her identity or future. She does, however, have a couple animal sidekicks, but who wouldn't want a cute pig or a hair-brained chicken in which to confide? As Moana moves closer to her destination, themes of courage, teamwork, and the lasting imprint of one's legacy rise valiantly in significance. Through it all, she stands up for what she believes in, even if she must go against the wishes of protective loved ones in order to succeed. It's a lesson everyone could stand to learn as they grow up. "Moana" is rather minor and unassuming as far as Disney's animated efforts go, unable to match the ingenuity and magic of the studio's best. As a lead character, though, there is nothing lacking in Moana's universal, progressive appeal. She is a winning force, confidently standing alongside Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Anna.