FILM REVIEW – MOANA. With the voices of Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement. Written by Jared Bush. Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker. Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. 113 minutes.
Something interesting is going on at Disney Animation, and it’s not Pixar. Pixar’s recent films included the brilliant “Inside Out,” the entertaining if uninspired “Finding Dory,” and such duds as “Monsters University” and “The Good Dinosaur.” That next year brings us “Cars 3” is not a good sign.
Meanwhile Disney’s separate animation unit–now supervised by Pixar’s John Lasseter–has had major hits with “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” Their latest offering, MOANA, will likely extend the run of the reinvigorated operation. Taking its inspiration from Polynesian folk tales, it tells the story of Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) who is destined to succeed her father, Tui (Temuera Morrison), as her island’s chief. Although the two are close, they have clashed since her childhood over her desire to explore the oceans. He has one hard and fast rule: no one travels beyond the outer reef. The island takes care of all their needs, he argues, and there’s no need to go into the dangerous outer world.
Her Gramma (Rachel House) encourages Moana’s dreams and we know it’s only a matter of time before she sets sail. Her mission is to set right a situation involving the gods that occurred centuries before when the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti, the earth goddess. Now it’s up to Moana–with Maui’s reluctant help–to set things right.
The film has a lot going for it, particularly in the characters of Moana and Maui. She’s the plucky heroine while he’s the egotistical partner whose contributions are crucial, like teaching the novice sailor to navigate, but does not upstage her. Indeed, for all the hilarity of Johnson’s bravado in voicing Maui (with the help of some animated tattoos), she’s the one who is frequently saving the day.
There are also the interesting secondary characters we expect in a Disney film, but being derived from Polynesian mythology, they will seem fresh and original, from the dimwitted rooster Hei-Hei to coconut pirates to Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a monster crab who collects shiny things (and gets the film’s final laugh after the closing credits). Likewise, the animation is top-notch. The human figures are suitably cartoonish so that we can accept them just like other toons, but the animation of the oceans and the native boats skimming across the water are so impressive you’ll almost feel the ocean spray.
Oddly, the one thing that doesn’t work is the music. There’s a song score largely credited to Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” but there’s not a memorable number in the bunch. The songs are serviceable but forgettable.
2016 has turned out to be quite a good year for animation, and “Moana” is a worthy addition to the honor roll. For those simply interested in a good family feature to see over the Thanksgiving holiday, you’ll be happy to know that it works for that, too.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.