Look out “Frozen” — a new Disney insta-classic has arrived to captivate kiddos and grown-ups alike. “Moana” takes Disney’s tried-and-true formula of colorful characters, catchy songs and an exhilerating adventure, and mingles it with rich and wondrous culture of Oceania. The result is a “princess tale” that’s vibrant, unique and absolutely spectacular.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho was chosen from hundreds of Pacific Islander girls to lend her voice to Moana, the chieftain’s daughter chosen by the ocean to go on a sea-traversing quest to save the world from certain ruin. With a song on her heart, her eyes on the stars, and a kooky chicken in her galley, this fearless heroine sails forth to first find the lost demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a winsome shapeshifter whose greatest concern is his reputation. The two butt heads and make waves, facing off against coco-nutty pirates, a fiery lava god, and a gargantuan, bling-obsessed crab voiced by Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”). Every step of the way, “Moana” is wonderful.
With a bright voice and contagious enthusiasm, Cravalho brings “Moana’s” eponymous heroine full-bodied to the screen in her first spirited song. Disney’s remarkable animation team awes audiences with authentic physicality, a jubilant aesthetic full of color and texture, and curly hair that flows and whips about in the wind with astonishing photo realism. Directors Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid”) and Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) add whimsy to the CG animation by varying its styles, including influences to the hand-drawn roots of Disney, and exploring Oceanic culture through Maui’s moving autobiographical tattoos, which rally, scold and hug him, as a skin-deep sidekick.
Maui is an animation milestone all his own, seamlessly snapping from burly demigod to razor-toothed shark, glossy beetle and soaring eagle. His tattoos gambol to reflect his mood or serve as a silent Jiminy Cricket guide. Yet it’s impossible to imagine this captivating character without Johnson’s vocals. The pro wrestler turned movie mega-star’s insatiable charisma is perfectly captured in the capering and cocky demigod. Even as he openly mocks Moana’s earnestness, Maui is lovable and potentially redeemable thanks to Johnson’s unrelenting charm. And this brings me to one of Moana’s greatest assets, its message.
Our story begins with the tale of how the short-sighted Maui essentially broke the world, spreading a darkness that is slowly but surely killing the islands of Oceania. The whole of Maui’s arc is about redemption, about how no mistake — no matter how major — is unforgivable or unsalvageable. But you have to recognize you’re wrong, and work hard to right it. As Moana gears to its big, fiery finale, the script by Jared Bush offers another moving message that’s been popping up in modern animation like “ParaNorman” and “Zootopia.” Meanwhile, Moana’s lesson is the standard princess stuff of following her heart. But with songs by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i, and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, its a tender trope made heartwarming and rousing once more.
There’s so much to love in “Moana,” I fear I’ll miss something. The songs are joyful, poignant and brandish the tripping rhymes and wordplay that’s made Miranda a sensation beyond Broadway. Cravalho sings her heart out on the film’s wish song, “How Far I’ll Go.” Johnson’s gifted”You’re Welcome,” which he sing-speaks with plenty of bravado and humor. (Warning: this catchy show-stopper will dance around your head for days.) Miranda chimes in on the transporting theme song “We Know The Way,” and Clement dives into a funky Bowie-style for the villain jam “Shiny,” a spoiler-laced stand-out.
The voice talent ensemble is arguably the best Disney has ever assembled, not only boasting Cravalho’s eagerness and Johnson’s boldness, but also Clement, the comic genius/modern go-to for movie baddies (“Rio,” “Rick and Morty,” “The BFG”). Plus, Disney puts other studios to shame by proving you can cast films ethnically appropriately and remarkably all at once. Along with the aforementioned trio who share an Oceanic heritage, “Moana” boasts Maori actors Temuera Morrison (“Once Were Warriors”) and Rachel House (“Hunt For The Wilderpeople”), and Hawaiian singer Nicole Scherzinger (of Pussycat Dolls fame) to voice Moana’s loving family. And behind-the-scenes videos reveal the same care was put into casting the chorus who built the soundscape of “Moana” songs. So Oceanic culture is not just set dressing to the Disney blueprint. It informs and infuses nearly every aspect of the production. And then, yeah sure, the studio tacks on some cuddly animal friends, because there’s toys that need to be merchandized.
All told, I adored “Moana.” It’s a thrilling adventure that surges with sensational songs, lovable heroes, and messages that promote responsibility, forgiveness, bravery and resilience. And we could use all of that right now.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker and starring Auli’i Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson, “Moana” also features the voice talents of Alan Tudyk, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger and Temuera Morrison and original music by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It arrives in theaters on November 23.