Disney’s Frozen, with its snowy Nordic landscape, was a perfect animated feature for the holiday season back in 2013. The studio’s new holiday release, Moana, is just as perfect, but for the opposite reason: enveloped in the landscape and folklore of Polynesia, it is a sunny, beachy, gorgeously animated antidote to winter.
Moana is directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker, the brain trust behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, among others. The movie’s story and look are steeped in Polynesian mythology, and it features a voice cast of mostly Pacific Islander descent, along with a songwriting team that includes Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame. The result is a wonderful tale of a young woman on a quest to find herself and fulfill her destiny.
Scripted by Jared Bush, from a story concocted by the directors and their minions, Moana begins with a creation myth about a slumbering earth goddess in the shape of an island. Because a trickster demigod called Maui stole the sparkling green heart of the goddess, the seas are restless, and life in the islands is imperiled.
This tale is told by Gramma Tala (Rachel House) to an audience of rapt island children, including her own granddaughter, Moana. All her life, Moana has been drawn to the sea. Her father, the village chieftain (Maori actor Temuera Morrison), tells her the sea is dangerous, but life is beautiful in the village, where she is destined to lead the people one day.
But the sea disagrees. One day when little Moana protects a sea turtle hatchling from predator birds as it crawls into the sea, a beautiful green wave rises up and deposits a trail of conch shells at her feet. Her grandmother tells her the sea has chosen Moana to find Maui and return the heart to the sleeping island, far away across the ocean—even though villagers are forbidden from sailing their outriggers past the reef that surrounds their island.
But when Moana is a young woman (now voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), a coconut blight and a dwindling fish supply put island life in jeopardy. Navigating by a constellation shaped like the Maui’s fabled fish-hook, Moana finds the desolate salt island where the demigod has been stranded for his crime. With a body full of tattoos, and plenty of attitude, Maui (Dwayne Johnson, who’s part Samoan), isn’t interested in Moana’s quest; he covets her boat. But when the sea prevents him from throwing Moana overboard, Maui reluctantly adopts a big brother attitude, and they set out to fix the mess he’s made.
After a bizarrely funny encounter with a few boatloads of ferocious pirates made out of coconuts, they visit a scavenger crab (Jemaine Clement provides its sleepy hipster voice) to retrieve the magic fish-hook that allows Maui to shape-shift. Moana’s determination to become a Wayfinder echoes another great girl-power movie, Whale Rider. And Maui’s cool tattoos not only move around and tell their own animated stories, but act as Maui’s conscience.
Like Brave before it, Moana is an original adventure not based on a classic fairy tale, and a Disney princess movie that doesn’t need a prince. And it’s always great to see the folks at Disney continuing their pursuit of diversity. (Remember when it was a big deal that Belle in Beauty and the Beast had brown eyes, not blue?)
Bursting with color, music, beautiful seagoing vistas, and the mythology and folkways of the Pacific Islands, Moana is guaranteed to cure your winter blahs.
With the voices of Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, and Jemaine Clement. Written by Jared Bush. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker; co-directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. A Walt Disney release. Rated PG. 113 minutes.