As you’re watching Disney’s “Moana”—not to be confused with Robert Flaherty’s identically-titled 1926 documentary about a Samoan youth—you’d be forgiven for assuming that in putting the movie together the makers were not only using the studio’s past animated successes as models (understandably, since directors John Musker and Ron Clements were responsible for both “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid”), but contemplating the new picture’s inevitable transformation into a Broadway musical somewhere down the line. The result certainly isn’t unpleasant, but the level of calculation at work is impossible to ignore, and you might find it nibbling away at your enjoyment as you soak in all the color, tunefulness and sheer showmanship.
Still, while it lacks the novelty of such recent efforts as “Inside/Out” or “Zootopia,” the movie embraces well-worn Disney conventions breezily enough to be consistently amusing—on occasion it even sends them up with a wink. And it does so while exhibiting a fairly enlightened cultural attitude toward its South Pacific setting—in comparison to “Lilo & Stitch,” for example—and eschewing the previously obligatory plot device of a heroine pining away for a handsome suitor.
Moana is introduced as an infant living on the idyllic Polynesian island of Motunui, presided over by her father Chief Tui Waialiki (voiced by Temuera Morrison). The greatest influence over her, however, comes from her free-spirited grandmother, Tala (Rachel House) who encourages the child’s interest in the surrounding sea—a natural inclination, as her name refers to the deep water—despite her father’s insistence that his people never venture out beyond the reef.
Moana grows up to be an adventurous teen (now voiced by Auli’I Cravalho) who decides to take action when her people’s very existence is threatened by a blight on their coconut crop and a sudden drop-off in the number of fish caught near to shore. Defying her father’s orders, accompanied only by her pet chicken, the utterly dense Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), she sails beyond the reef in a mission to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), whose theft of the heart of Te Fiti, the mother island of them all, is believed to be the cause of the catastrophe. She aims to find Maui, retrieve the jade stone, and restore it to its rightful place, thereby balancing the world again.
Moana does, of course, locate Maui—a vain braggart with a lot of Aladdin’s Genie in him (and a tattoo of himself on his chest with which he regularly argues)—and the two form a reluctant partnership to find the stone, now among the treasures of the monstrous crab Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement), who doesn’t want to give it up. They’ll also need to confront a passel of pirates and Te Ka, a huge creature atop a volcanic atoll. Needless to say, the intrepid duo succeeds, with occasional help from Maui’s now damaged magic fishhook but mostly through Moana’s gradual mastery of the art of sailing, which will ultimately bring back to Motunui not only peace and prosperity, but the skill the people had once excelled in.
The heart of the movie lies in the growing bond between Moana and Maui, and it’s nicely played out, thanks to the splendid character animation and the performances of Cravalho and Johnson. She brings both winsomeness and determination to the princess (who declines such a title though Maui forces it on her), while he endows the demigod with the irresistible swagger that a pro wrestler needs. They both also get memorable musical numbers from the trio of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, with Cravalho’s “How Far I’ll Go” destined to become an anthem and Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” a patented show-stopper, among others. But there are jewels assigned to others as well: Clement belts out an “Under the Sea”-quality number in Tamatoa’s “Shiny,” for example.
“Moana” looks gorgeous, of course, as one would expect of today’s Disney work. As already mentioned, the character animation is outstanding, but the backgrounds are equally eye-popping, with the ocean waves positively luminous (and often as lively as the “human” figures). As is usually the case nowadays, a 3D version is available, but the 2D is a perfectly agreeable alternative, the color and imagery crisp and rich.
“Moana” tweaks the Disney animated template but sticks to its essentials, and does so nicely—it might not be revolutionary, but it’s exuberantly familiar. Preceding “Moana” is Leo Matsuda’s “Inner Workings,” a short that’s reminiscent of “Inside/Out” in its portrayal of a conformist worker whose mind encourages him to break the rules and have some fun.