A typically anachronistic and heartfelt all-ages Disney animated feature that’s slightly self-aware.
As the chieftain’s daughter, Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) yearns to sail open waters, but her father forbids any of his people from going beyond the reefs circling their island paradise, daughter or not. Chosen by the ocean herself and encouraged by her grandmother Tala (voice of Rachel House), Moana defies her father to locate Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), a demigod exiled for centuries as a result of his mischief, and persuade him to right a wrong that threatens to doom the entire world. The task at hand won’t be easy for either of them — especially with an entire ocean to search — but if they don’t succeed, no one else can.
Gorgeous imagery, Broadway-ready songs, and instantly lovable characters, Disney took no chances in their original concept for Moana. One notable exception is the lack of any romantic entanglement, but this was billed early on as an island adventure that calls back Lilo and Stitch‘s Hawaiian paradise while creating an original legend and ready-to-solve dilemma that appears inspired by Pixar’s short film “Lava.” Other than knocking off celebrities left and right, 2016 has proven itself to be a juggernaut for animated family fare, and Moana is by no means the exception. With the exception of yet another Ice Age sequel, most animated films have done incredible business, especially for all of them coming out in the same year.
Promises made, promises kept. Moana isn’t forgettable, but it doesn’t stand out as much as one might expect, especially with all the added competition this year. With a message of following your heart while embracing responsibility, the racist/prejudice reveal of Zootopia‘s message carries far more weight so far as life lessons go. For those looking for more heart in your story, this is where Moana shines — although it takes a few detours into the bizarre. The coconut pirate critter attack is wonderfully animated insanity, but a giant villainous singing crab (voice of Jemaine Clement) felt like a poor follow-up act to the zany mini-cutthroats; too bad the filmmakers could find a way to reverse the order to better build up their appearance.
While Moana is the title character, it’s Dwayne Johnson’s Maui who steals the show — because he can. In what may be the best twist of all, Maui empowers Moana rather than simply leaving the critical task to him. Working out their roles it is the meat of the film, and the chemistry shines through. It’s a big adventure that all comes down to a simple idea, another departure for Disney rather than offering up another irredeemable villain who dies in a thunderstorm. In any other year, this would be the biggest animated movie being talked about and even pushing into other awards; being the end of the year, it will be interesting how well award voters remember that this isn’t the only animated feature to choose from.
Moana is suitable for all ages with a bit of bathroom humor, implied off-screen deaths, and threatening situations.