PLOT: A teenage Polynesian girl teams with a cocky demi-god in order to fulfill her destiny as the savior of her tribe.
REVIEW: It can be argued that the domination of Pixar over the past two decades in the animation (and just pure storytelling) field has spurred Walt Disney Animation Studios to step up their game in a major way these last few years. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, TANGLED, WRECK-IT RALPH, FROZEN, ZOOTOPIA (and to perhaps a lesser extent, BIG HERO 6) have all been vivid, clever adventures with equal amounts genuine heart and visual pizzaz that can stand toe-to-toe with most of Pixar's output during the same time. Now along comes MOANA, which is quite a traditional Disney tale from the old school, its hero's journey a reliable one, but with such beautiful imagery that you're willing to forgive it for its somewhat routine narrative. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who bring the same sturdy focus they brought to THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN, MOANA will delight your eyes and bring a smile to your face. It'll also tickle your ears frequently, thanks to a few terrific songs courtesy of HAMILTON maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda.
MOANA is a colorful spin on the Disney princess model, giving the audience a bit of diversity in the form of the titular character (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), the 16-year-old daughter of the head of a Polynesian tribe whose birthright it is to be leader of her village one day. In true Disney fashion, the young girl is plucky and resourceful, having reverence for her family and people but also possessed by the spirit of adventure. No one leaves Moana's island, thanks to strict rules laid down by the chief (Temuera Morrison), but Moana can't help but wonder what's on the other side of the reef that surrounds the land. (It helps that her eccentric grandmother goads her on.) When the village's resources start to dry up, Moana takes it upon herself to set sail in search of Maui, a rascally demi-god who holds the key to saving Moana's people and home.
Maui, you probably heard, is voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and it's a great bit of casting as the actor's larger-than-life persona fits perfectly with Maui, an egotistical alpha-male who quickly captures our hearts with "You're Welcome," a terrific number where he mansplains to Moana how he helped create the Earth she knows today. Maui and Moana end up being, of course, a capable team; when they're not squabbling, they're having to work together to avoid pirates (an excellent sequence that must have been at least partially inspired by MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) and escape the literal clutches of one-time Maui ally Tamatoa, a giant crab with a nasty vanity complex. (Tamatoa is voiced by Jemaine Clement, who has another of movie's killer songs, "Shiny," in which he pompously boasts about his jewel-encrusted shell.) Ultimately, the duo will have to face off against a massive lava monster (one of the film's many visual marvels), one that Maui has already failed to defeat.
The partnership between Moana and Maui is significant because, for once, Disney hasn't given their princess a rudimentary love interest to spar with. MOANA is more about the young girl's strength and resilience, and though she needs Maui's assistance, she's just as important to him as he is to her. The beats of the adventure are a bit more routine. There's nothing very innovative about Moana's overall arc; the story moves along in completely predictable fashion. Nothing so wrong with that - there's something comforting about a fable we can wholly rely upon - but in the face of excitingly fresh movies like WRECK-IT RALPH and ZOOTOPIA, MOANA feels a bit ordinary strictly from a screenplay standpoint, despite its feminist streak.
But at the end of the day its tough to complain about a movie that is largely so joyous. As can be counted upon, the animation is topnotch. (It's kind of silly to be wowed by animated water, but damn, even that's impressive to look at.) And while it's not as funny as Disney Animation's best recent work, there's a cute, likable and generally harmless attitude to the humor that ensures it'll get laughs from the kids, if only providing smiles to the adults. (The film's sidekicks are an impossibly dumb chicken and the sea itself, which often takes shape in order to help out Moana.) Like a comfy old blanket, MOANA is reassuring and snug and sure to make you feel warm. Now excuse me while I listen to the soundtrack again.
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