“You know who you are.”
Disney makes the traditional seem fresh with Moana, a bright, beautiful, emotional adventure tale that takes your standard “hero’s journey” narrative and transports it to new places. Teenager Moana (voiced perfectly by Auli’i Cravalho) is destined to become the chief of her island of Motunui. There’s a whole big ocean out there, but the people of Motunui don’t dare go beyond the reef, much to Moana’s frustration. She’s beset with wanderlust, and while her Gramma Tala (Rachel House) encourages Moana’s dreams of travel, her father sternly rebukes them.
When a curse befalls the bountiful island, however, Moana bucks tradition and takes to the sea (accompanied by a lovable, dimwitted rooster named Heihei) on a quest to find Maui (Dwayne Johnson, his trademark charisma coming through loud and clear in animated form), a shape-shifting demigod replete with a tapestry of living tattoos. Only Maui can restore the mythical “heart of Te Fiti,” and bring prosperity back to Motunui and beyond.
First and foremost: despite Moana’s title of “chief”, Moana is yet another Disney princess movie — a fact that might frustrate some tired of the staple. But Moana is wise enough to know this, and have a little fun with it along the way. When Moana and Maui first meet, Maui quips, “If you wear a dress, and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Also helping matters is how new the Polynesian setting is for Disney — this film is not weighed down in the medieval-style kingdoms of Tangled and Frozen; instead, it’s set on the gorgeously rendered ocean and the various islands Moana and Maui travel to. At this point it almost seems a given that Disney’s animation will be spectacular and eye-popping, but it cannot be understated how lush and alive the world of this film looks, and how photorealistic all that sprawling sea comes across.
Aiding the visuals is a catchy group of songs from Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foaʻi & Mark Mancina. The songs of Moana may not inspire the same ad nauseam playtime as Frozen’s “Let It Go’, but there are a handful of earworms here that you can expect to get lodged into your noggin. Most memorable: Johnson’s hearty rendition of “You’re Welcome”, a bit of braggadocio Maui sings about his exploits and “Shiny”, sung by the film’s only true villain, a giant, jewelry-loving crab named Tamatoa, voiced by Jemaine Clement doing a pretty spot-on David Bowie impression.
As delightful as the songs are, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective were it not for the performances of the cast. Newcomer Cravalho makes for an immensely endearing heroine, full of just the right mix of hope and self-doubt. Part of the joy of the film is both watching Moana grow into the confident chief she was meant to be, and hearing Cravalho’s vocal work grow into that confidence. Cravalho and Dwayne “Formerly The Rock, Now The Sexiest Man Alive” Johnson have remarkable chemistry together, with Johnson’s Maui first starting as a foil to Moana before becoming more of a mentor.
Moana isn’t Disney at their most original, but it is Disney at their best. It’s vibrant, focused and has a rather simple, but important, message: learning who you are, and what you’re meant to do, by remembering what you’ve already done. The film’s climactic conflict isn’t solved with violence or a battle of wits, but with a simple statement: “You know who you are.” Sometimes that’s exactly the type of message we need to hear.