It’s like a game with Disney now: How conventionally can their animated movies develop the exact same template before exploding into innovation and individuality?
With “Moana,” the change comes as soon as the titular heroine leaves her Polynesian island. Up to that point, we’ve had the tweener girl with big ambitions, the overcautious dad, the village unwilling to question its traditional lifestyle, the wacky animal sidekick – a moronic chicken named Heihei who made this vegetarian yearn for a drumstick – and the wise old grandma you know will soon become a wise old spirit grandma.
We’ve had the “Here’s where we live” introductory chorus and the “I want” song for the yearning Moana (Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who turns 16 this week). She has been given a quest: Return a magical stone to a distant island, so an earth spirit will bring prosperity back to the land. So far, ho-hum.
Then Moana ventures away from her home, which has begun to decay because of an environmental catastrophe, into the open waters of the Pacific. Suddenly the movie starts humming.
Moana meets Maui (Dwayne Johnson), an eccentric demigod with a rapping tongue, an ego the size of Australia and the ability to shape-shift – at least, when he possesses his magical fish hook. He stole the stone in the first place and has been punished by imprisonment on a small island and the loss of that hook. Resourceful Moana and reluctant Maui face tiny pirates who live in coconuts, a monstrous crab who dwells in a land of monsters, and a fire-hurling demon with a secret.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who kicked off the Disney animation revival with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, return happily to the sea. (The credits also include “co-directors” Don Hall and Chris Williams; Jared Bush gets sole screenplay credit, but seven people worked on the story.)
The filmmakers pay homage to Pacific Island traditions: the songs and war dances of the Maori, the hula of the Hawaiians, the double-sided sailing vessels used by many peoples. Maui has movable tattoos with which he interacts – they cheer and reprove him or predict possible futures – and the 3-D animation sometimes switches to segments that look like dreamtime paintings done by native people in Australia.
This hodgepodge works. The film can stop for a bizarre incident in which the titanic crab (Maori actor Jemaine Clement, doing his David Bowie impression) sings a bizarre song about how glorious he is, then snap back to the central action. Because the songs come from three composers – Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame – the music jumps all over the world map.
Cravalho shows spunk and a generically lovely voice, though she’s saddled with assembly-line anthems Disney has done better elsewhere. Johnson has exuberance, deft timing and a passable singing voice. (Samoan ancestry qualifies him for the job.)
The strong supporting cast includes Maori actors Temuera Morrison and Rachel House as Moana’s father and grandmother. Texas-born Alan Tudyk remains odd bird out as Heihei, but chickens probably sound alike the world over.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison.
Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker, with co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams.
Length: 113 minutes.
Rating: PG (peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements).