Moana Voices of Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Rated PG. Now playing citywide.
A few years after Frozen became a massive worldwide hit, Disney is back in the animated princess business with Moana, a pleasant but not particularly distinctive feature from veteran directors Ron Clements and John Musker. Clements and Musker were behind Disney animated classics The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, but they were also responsible for 2009’s mediocre The Princess and the Frog, which similarly attempted to blend an underrepresented cultural tradition with familiar Disney storytelling styles.
In Moana, the inspiration comes from Polynesian mythology, and the title character (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the chief of fictional remote island Motonui, where inhabitants are forbidden from venturing beyond a reef just off the island’s shore. But when food on the island suddenly becomes scarce, Moana takes matters into her own hands, seeking out an ancient jewel and the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who must return that jewel to its rightful place in order to bring life back to the islands. It’s a simple quest story handled in a direct but sometimes slow-moving fashion, especially before Moana finally locates Maui. Once she does, the determined but slightly naïve Moana and the arrogant, vain Maui have a fun (if predictable) chemistry, and the story’s message about self-confidence and bravery is welcome (if also predictable).
Moana is a solid addition to the Disney princess lineup, and she manages to get through the movie without having to hitch herself to a love interest, so that’s a sort of progress. The movie, Clements and Musker’s first all-CGI production, looks gorgeous, but the character design, even with its Polynesian influences, is very safe and unadventurous. The songs (co-written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda) are equally unmemorable, and only Cravalho really has the talent to deliver them with the power and control they need. Even so, the Disney machine ensures that Moana is crowd-pleasing and upbeat, an ideal movie for families to see together over the holiday weekend. They might just want to put Frozen on again when they get back home.