Movie Review: Moana

Disney’s Moana delivers girl power, South Pacific-style

Moana, the latest Disney animated feature, is everything you want and expect from the celebrated studio: lyrically captivating, visually stunning, alternately adventurous and playful and vaguely empowering. Although it lacks an instant musical hit like Frozen’s “Let It Go,” it definitely deserves a spot on the keeper list of Disney cartoons.

Set in an idyllic South Pacific environment, the movie focuses on the coming-of-age story of its title character, the daughter of an island chieftain who longs to explore the vast ocean beyond her village’s reef rather than tend to her leadership responsibilities at home. Moana’s heart is torn between her people and her dreams. Already, there’s a hint that we are continuing the recent evolution of Disney heroines from damsels in distress to girls with authority.

Her seafaring aspirations do, of course, get called into play when the fauna of her island starts to die. Her wise, if batty, grandmother convinces Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) that she must leave the safety of the familiar to put things right. The movie then shifts into full-blown Joseph Campbell territory as Moana embarks upon a hero’s quest, full of mysteries, challenges, and personal growth. Moana is aided on her quest, eventually, by the demigod Maui (a Pacific island version of Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson). Will everything be restored to the natural order? Are we watching a Disney movie…what do you think?

Moana is a fascinating combination of elements. It explores new ground with the latest yet rare Disney princess of color. It features exotically attractive settings, unfamiliar mythology, and little-known but authentically South Pacific voice talent. Nearly all the principals are voiced by Hawaiian and New Zealander actors, including Rachel House as Gramma Tala, Temeura Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger as Chief Tui and his wife Sina, and Jemaine Clement (from TV’s Flight of the Conchords) as the humorously villainous Tamatoa.

But the film also hews closely to the Disney formula in both plot points and musical numbers. It’s the animated version of comfort food, and we know pretty much where the story will end up and the path it will take to get there. Similarly, one can almost predict each musical number in the moments before it starts. First, we have the happy villagers’ song, then segue to the wise elder “follow your heart” ballad, then cue up the heroine’s soaring anthem of self-discovery until it’s time for the up-tempo “quirky hero bragging” tune. Disney well knows the expectations of its largely adolescent audience and delivers exactly what they want.

Although Moana is clearly aimed at the younger set, it also entertains and delights the adults in the audience with the catchy music, breathtaking visuals, and reassuring story. So, in the end, everybody gets what they want, including, for Disney, another hit for its cartoon catalogue.