Considering it’s a mishmash of styles and influences, Moana ultimately achieves—for better and for worse—a coherent identity as an animated Disney princess musical. I suppose co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker deserve most of the credit for that, as they’ve corralled a story inspired by Polynesian myths, music from a variety of collaborators (including Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda), and contemporary concerns about identity politics and still whipped up an endearing pleasure that will fit nicely between your DVDs of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, two of their earlier features.
The title character (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) lives on an island in the ancient South Pacific, where she is learning how to rule under her father, the chief. Yet while most of the islanders, including her father, are content to stay safely near shore, Moana has always longed to explore the greater ocean. She gets her chance when the island is threatened by a decaying force and she sets sail to seek help from the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
Johnson is the movie’s secret weapon, as his hubristic bravado and perfectly timed line readings bring the movie some much-needed humor about a third of the way in (the dim-witted chicken sidekick wasn’t cutting it). My favorite number might be Maui’s “You’re Welcome”—sung by Johnson, with music and lyrics by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Miranda—though I’d be remiss not to give a nod to Jemaine Clement, who brings a mirthful malevolence as a giant, bauble-obsessed crab singing an ode to all things “Shiny.”
The animation is inventive and delicate throughout. Equally as important as casting Cravalho, a Hawaiian actress, in the lead role is the way the movie captures the particular color and texture of Moana’s hair, so that it’s something other than Barbie smooth. (The same could be said of Maui’s locks.) The depiction of water, meanwhile, is astonishingly realistic when it needs to be, and fantastical when the story calls for that. A clever touch is the way the ocean itself becomes a character, teasing Moana as a toddler at the beach and later, when she is at sea, repeatedly scooping her up to safety. The film’s climax, in fact, includes a showdown between fire and water that is at once bombastic and intimate—as any good product from the Disney princess factory should be.