Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) isn’t your average Disney heroine. For one thing, she has no interest in the title of “princess.” She might be the daughter of the chief, but make no mistake, she’d rather be called a “wayfinder” – an oceanic navigator guiding ships throughout the Pacific Ocean. When she encounters the irascible, formidable demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), she’s quick to correct him.
The title character of Disney’s latest animated feature, the Pacific Islands-inspired “Moana,” reflects the evolution of the Disney heroine over the years. She’s smart, strong, resourceful and fully capable of saving herself and others with her wits and physicality. She’s the type of heroine one hopes little girls will want to be like – empathetic, self-reliant, skilled, hard-working, driven to help others.
One thing that might be a bit harder to emulate is her mystical relationship with the ocean surrounding her island home. She’s always been drawn to the gorgeous, crystal turquoise waters (which the animators have rendered in sparkling detail), though her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), guides her away from the ocean and toward her leadership duties on land. But Moana can’t resist the ocean’s siren call, especially after her playful, rebellious Gramma Tala (Rachel House) describes how the ocean chose Moana to return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, stolen by mischievous demi-god Maui.
So Moana sets out beyond the reef to find Maui, retrieve his magical fishhook, and return the heart to Te Fiti, battling ferocious coconut warriors and miserly crabs and the lava monster Taka in the process. She and the arrogant Maui share a prickly alliance forged by their shared goals. Their trio is rounded out by a truly dumb chicken who stows away on the boat, Heihei (Alan Tudyk).
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The beautiful neon-pastel island scenery is bolstered by instant ear-worm musical numbers, written by Tony-award winning “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i, along with composer Mark Mancina. Be prepared for Moana’s soaring inspirational anthem “How Far I’ll Go” to replace “Let It Go” from “Frozen” imminently.
With a simple story of one girl setting off beyond the horizon in order to save her home, the voice performances round out the flavor and character of the film. Johnson offers much of the comedic element, with his fast-talking Maui, always in conflict with his animated tribal tattoos, who serve as his conscience.
But aside from the visual delights, remarkable heroine and instant-classic soundtrack, what comes through so beautifully in “Moana” is the care and attention to detail the filmmakers have put to rendering a story about the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. The religious folklore and tradition of voyaging that make up the story have been well-researched, with important input from native people.
To that end, it’s incredibly impressive that Disney cast every major voice role with Pacific Islanders, from Samoan (Johnson) to Maori (Jemaine Clement) to native Hawaiian (Cravalho and Nicole Scherzinger, who voices her mother, Sina). The film is richer for its attention to heritage, going far beyond surface aesthetics, building the foundation of “Moana” on the values and beliefs that make up this culture. “Moana” will warmly fill your heart and soul, and set your imagination soaring across the sea.
Rated: PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. Voices: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House. Directors: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, Chris Williams. Running time: 113 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Edwards 14 (2D, 3D), Edwards 12 (2D, 3D), Majestic 18 (2D, 3D), Village Cinema, Terrace Drive-In.