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 Auli’I
Cravalho and Dwayne 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.
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
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.