We’re in dire need of affirmation these days. With the world seemingly imploding following the U.S. election, Disney’s “Moana,” the studio’s 56th theatrically released animated feature, is exactly what we need right now. An inspired, spellbinding, wonderfully realized tale and a dazzling, visually/morally beautiful treat for the eyes, ears, heart and soul, it’s a $150 million slice of comfort, love and emotional nourishment, and an important, essential reminder for audiences young and old that not only can goodness prevail through darkness, but when in the right hands with the right resources, it comes plentifully. For anyone that feels scared, insecure, fragile or confused right now, they owe it to themselves to see “Moana” as soon as they possibly can. Move over, “Frozen;” not since 2010’s “Tangled” has Disney made such a refreshing tribute to the human spirit.
On the island of Motunui, 16-year-old Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) spends her days dreaming about a life lived out at sea. The daughter of the chief of the tribe, she is destined to continue the proud traditions of her ancestors. Much like her eccentric Gramma Tala (Rachel House), however, she values the water over the land, to the point where she forms a spiritual, often intimate relationship with her salty surroundings. She knows the tides are tough and that her travels won’t be easy, but she’s bold, persistent and head-strong all the same. And in the midst of her island crumbling on account of its missing Heart of Te Fiti, Moana volunteers to find the demigod that stole it, Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), in order to rescue her people. Maui, of course, is stubborn, reluctant and bull-headed in his storied ways, even when stranded and abandoned by the gods that once guided him, but Moana doesn’t give up on a challenge easily. Together, they’ll begrudgingly sail the South Pacific, learning gradually that they’ll need to work with one another to save the world as they know it, whether Maui likes it or not.
Like the best Disney films, “Moana” feels vibrant and exciting in its traditionalism. Directed with confidence, care, and a deep-seated respect for Polynesian culture by John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “The Princess And The Frog”) under Jared Bush’s equally touching, heartfelt original screenplay, it’s a buoyant, impressively lovely work of popping visuals, textured storytelling and toe-tapping music numbers, all of which come naturally and progressively during its smoothly realized 103 minutes. Despite working with CG animation extensively for the first time, Clements and Musker carry the same wonderful attention to character, design and detail that shines throughout their 2D films. Whether it’s the astoundingly characteristic ocean water or the bouncy tattoos found on Maui’s muscular bod, everything about this movie is gorgeous in its vivid, stunningly wondrous visual extravagance.
Much like the aforementioned “Tangled” and “Frozen,” “Moana” is constantly self-aware of its princess-story origins, which doesn’t necessarily forgive the filmmakers for using such a tired trope, but it at least affords them numerous opportunities to poke fun at the endlessly familiarity of the studio’s 50+ films. Thankfully, there are no castles, evil stepmothers or dashing Prince Charmings this time. In fact, there’s no romance of any kind. Rather, the crux of the film focuses on two different people of two different backgrounds and genders working together against their differing viewpoints and judgements towards the greater good for themselves and those around them. It’s a timely message that might not be astoundingly original or new, but it’s spun with a compelling mix of emotional weight, levity, empathy and humility. Much like this year’s equally excellent “Kubo And The Two Strings,” it’s the right kind of familiar: a warm, gentle, forgiving and deeply understanding family adventure that’s an absolute gem.
Made all the better by snappy, contagiously catchy new tunes from Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”), and fantastic voice performances from Cravalho and Johnson, “Moana” is a completely enchanting boost of warmth to the heart. [A-]