Moana (Ron Clements/Don Hall/John Musker/Chris Williams, 2016) 4 out of 4 stars
Moana, the 56th animated feature from the Walt Disney Company, gives us a ravishing musical confection about a young Polynesian woman who must journey far and wide to save not only her people, but the world, battling monsters and demons along the way. The United States of America may not yet be ready for a female leader, but apparently our prime purveyor of coming-of-age fables has no problems shattering the proverbial glass ceiling (here, made of salt water and lava), and has been doing so for quite some time (albeit with minimal personal agency for its earlier princesses). What makes this particular version of a teenager seeking her place in life particularly fresh and engaging is its beautiful visual design, snappy songs (co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame) and winning cast. Who knew that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Central Intelligence) could sing?
Johnson voices Maui, a disgraced demigod whose actions in the film’s prologue – stealing the heart of the goddess Te Fiti – begin a slow process of ocean decay that, as the main story begins, has finally brought blight to the island where our heroine, the titular Moana, is but a child. All is good, at first, and the lovely baby – daughter of the chief – frolics in the sand and waves, oblivious of dangers to come. In a blissful moment, she rescues a young sea turtle on its way from nest to surf, and as she does so, the ocean chooses her for greatness by offering her the lost heart of Te Fiti. Which she promptly drops. She is, after all, at that point but a toddler. And so the film goes, mixing profundity with charming humor and crisp performances.
Speaking of charm, Johnson has it to spare. But he’s not alone: newcomer Auli’i Carvalho, as the adolescent Moana, matches him beat for beat. Along for the ride are other actors of Polynesian or Maori descent, including Paula House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as Moana’s beloved grandmother and, most notably, a hilarious Jermaine Clement (People Places Things) as a villainous giant crab with a taste for bling. Indeed, the film acts as a gentle corrective to movies past – among them, Disney’s own – that have too often cast white actors in non-European roles (even the otherwise innovative Kubo and the Two Strings came under fire for whitewashing its main characters). Positive and empowering racial and gender politics aside, though, this is a film that deserves to be seen on its many wonderful merits as joyous storytelling, above all else.
I was especially a fan of the gorgeous animation – in 3D for those who choose to see it that way – of both landscapes, seascapes, humans and creatures. The scene where Moana and Maui first meet, in which Johnson struts and sings his stuff, is filled with a wildly imaginative mix of 3D and 2D images within the frame that shows a delightful new level of visual sophistication. Maui, himself, is a work of art, his body covered in tattoos that shift and slide across his body. There are also adorable animal sidekicks, and even a cute army of vicious sentient coconuts that are as funny as they are deadly. As Moana struggles against internal doubt and external foes, with a reluctant Maui as guide and helpmate, we journey alongside her, basking in the giddy glow of a tale well told. Disney has given us a wonderful Thanksgiving present, to be savored by all. I’ll take seconds (and maybe thirds), please!