In a year of uncertainty, one thing has held true: Don’t bet against Disney.
Sure, the Mouse House stumbled this summer with the box office disappointment of Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” (although I’ve heard that it’s quite good), but they’ve been successful almost everywhere else. Not only have Disney’s live action and animated offerings raked in the money, but they’ve also been critically acclaimed. “Zootopia” turned another anthropomorphized animal comedy into a timely story about prejudice and tolerance (it also had this). “The Jungle Book” might be the pinnacle of the studio’s live-action remakes. And both “Captain America: Civil War” and “Doctor Strange” are thrilling, worthy additions to the Marvel canon. And there’s still a Star Wars movie on the way.
Now, Disney is steering back into its bread and butter, hoping to prove that the success of musical fairy tales “Tangled” and “Frozen” was not a fluke. But while “Moana” might appear to be yet another movie about a singing princess, the Hawaiian adventure manages to tweak the formula and deliver something rousing.
Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the village chief. Although being groomed for leadership, the wildness and mystery of the sea call to her through the stories told by her eccentric grandmother and memories of a mysterious encounter as a toddler. Despite being forbidden to leave the safety of the island, Moana (along with her chicken) ventures out beyond the reef when the vegetation dies and the fish disappear. She finds Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), an egotistical, tattooed trickster … oh, and he’s a demigod. Centuries earlier, the mighty Maui — who, legend says, pulled the islands from the sea and put the sun in the sky — also stole a magical stone from a goddess, which is causing the vegetation to wither and die. Moana, helped out by mystical island forces, enlists Maui to help her return the stone to the goddess and make things right.
In some instances, “Moana” steers right into the same Disney princess formula as “Tangled” and “Frozen.” We’ve seen the heroine with the overprotective parents before. We’ve heard the songs about how they yearn to break free from their predictable routines and experience adventure. We’ve watched them go on a journey with funny sidekicks. “Moana” even comments on its familiarity when Maui tells heroine, “You’re wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick; you’re a princess.”
But “Moana” also feels fresh. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (the duo behind Disney classics “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “The Princess and the Frog”) bring energy and wit to the story. Johnson is an inspired, charismatic choice for Maui, a demigod who’s overly impressed with himself and has sentient tattoos that serve as on-body sidekicks. Maui’s all swagger, and there are few movie stars better at capturing that with a welcome dose of humor than the former pro wrestler. The songs, co-written by “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda and songwriter Opetaia Foa’i, aren’t the radio-ready chart toppers of “Frozen,” but are rich, warm and engaging, particularly Maui’s introduction “You’re Welcome” and Moana’s rousing anthem “How Far I’ll Go.” Miranda’s a playful wordsmith, and even if the songs are a bit too story-specific to become the next “Let it Go,” they’re going to send audiences out humming.
But what elevates “Moana” is its heroine. There’s never a question of Moana’s gender being a detriment to her leadership; early on, the film establishes that she’s already on the path to becoming a good chief. The relationship between Maui and Moana is always a friendship, with no straining to introduce an unwanted marriage or even a romantic relationship into the story. This is an adventure where Moana’s identity doesn’t hinge on a relationship and where she’s already primed to be a good leader; it’s an action-comedy with a badass lead, something that both little boys and girls are going to love. And in her debut, Cravahlo imbues the character with warmth, passion and humor. Plus, the Hawaiian mythology is a welcome change of pace after two lily-white princess musicals. In many ways, “Moana” is what I had hoped Pixar would deliver with “Brave.”
I don’t know that “Moana” ever jumps to the top of the Disney pantheon. Its lava monster is a fearsome foe, but the film lacks a memorable villain to rank it aside “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast.” And while its departures from formula are refreshing, it still feels a bit staid next to the flawed but subversive “Zootopia.” But it’s not a disappointment. The songs are catchy, the characters are fun and the adventure is thrilling. Even if it never quite hits greatness, “Moana” is a journey worth taking the family on.