Directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, Chris Williams, John Musker. Voices by Auli’l Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk. (2016, PG, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Wed., Nov. 23, 2016
Disney’s latest couldn’t have come at a better time, what with that as yet unbroken political glass ceiling and suchlike. Canny kids have at the very least an inkling of what’s going on in the real world, and the news of late has been rife with stories of children stricken by anxiety, fear, and a general sense of an adult world inexplicably turned upside down. The good news is that Moana is a wonderfully animated – in every sense of the word – tale of youthful female empowerment that dazzles the eye with an oceanic kaleidoscope of bioluminescent color, catchy songs, and a perfectly suited vocal cast. Who knew the Rock could belt out giddy showstoppers like an old Broadway ham?
Newcomer Cravalho voices the titular heroine with a skill that belies her age – she was 14 at the time – and comes across as one of Disney’s most intrepid and effervescent characters in years. The Disney “princess template” is in full effect, but it suits the narrative and this time there’s no real love story to get in the way of Moana’s headlong quest. That involves leaving her beloved but insular and stifling island home and setting sail in a traditional Hokulea canoe across storm-tossed seas in search of the demigod Maui (Johnson). Turns out the brawny, tattooed, and mightily egotistic Maui – he could give Trump a run for his money in the megalomania department – has stolen a magical stone from the gods and is living out his days on a desert island. You’d think he’d be overjoyed to have a visitor, especially one as spunky and smart as Moana, but their relationship is comically adversarial at first before finally turning, inevitably, to mutual respect. Along the way, Moana learns the virtues of perseverance in the face of the unknown and – no mean feat – how to become a true seafaring voyager just as her ancestors were. She even learns to chart her course by dead reckoning. It’s exactly the kind of can-do spirit that rattled little kids (and their equally shell-shocked moms and dads) could learn from in these angry and confusing times.
Disney’s animators have outdone themselves this time out. Moana is easily one of the studio’s most visually breathtaking creations, fair to bursting with shockingly vivid imagery that’s just this side of magical. Indeed, the entirety of the ocean is a character in its own right, and a sequence of Moana and Maui becalmed beneath a starry night sky as a huge, glowing manta ray circles their boat is downright gorgeous.
It’s rough sailing out in the real world these days, but Moana’s moral message – never give up and you’ll discover anything is possible if you cooperate rather than compete – feels exactly right for both kids and their parents right about now.