“Moana” is a joy.
A feast for the eyes. From Disney, it represents a pinnacle of CG animation. Its colors are incredibly vivid. The screen is bathed in bright cerulean hues of the limitless ocean sparkling in the sun, and the lush greenery of tropical island paradises.
A delight for the ears. Songs by “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samoan composer Opetaia Foa‘i and Grammy-winner Mark Mancina are at a “Lion King” level of excellence. The picture’s “We Know the Way” is an anthemic ode to exploration and self-discovery that has the hallmarks of an instant classic.
An uplifting moviegoing experience in which a tale of female empowerment is told in rousing fashion, with humor and passion and grace.
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Its teenage heroine, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a Hawaiian actress who’s a movie novice and a real find), is a beautiful Polynesian princess who embarks on an epic quest to save her people from the threat of starvation. In the process, she discovers within herself a deep connection to her ancestors and their seafaring culture.
It’s an elemental tale. Moana is called to her quest by the sea itself, represented by a beckoning, often playful water column reminiscent of a similar element in James Cameron’s “The Abyss.” She teaches herself how to sail. She learns how to navigate by the stars. And going forth alone, in defiance of the demand of her overly protective chieftain father (Temuera Morrison) that she not venture away from her home island, she learns who she was meant to be: a woman of great bravery and boundless curiosity about the world beyond the sheltering reef that surrounds her home.
She does not venture alone. Not long after setting sail, she fetches up on an island inhabited by a massively muscled demigod named Maui. At which point, humor kicks in. Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, whose wry line readings suggest he was having the time of his life in the recording studio, Maui has an ego as outsize as his body. He expects Moana to be awed by his awesomeness. Not a chance, big guy. He condescends. She pushes back. Their squabbles are very funny.
He’s a trickster and a shape-shifter, and when his magic short-circuits, his shifting shapes go weirdly and wackily awry.
He’s festooned with tattoos, and the tats have a habit of coming alive and serving as his conscience to rein in his egotistical excesses.
Principal directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Disney vets who directed “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” mined Polynesian lore for the story elements, and everything in the picture — from the characters’ clothes and hairstyles to the vessels they sail — bear the stamp of authenticity. But the greatest strength of “Moana” is the verve in which they move the action along and the sheer joyousness evident in every aspect of their storytelling. That joyousness peaks in a sequence where Moana’s people set sail in a fleet of ships, singing in exultation as they go forth upon the sea. The scene soars. So does “Moana,” in its entirety.
☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: featuring the voices of of Auli‘i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House.
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams and Don Hall.
Running time: 1:36
Rated: PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.