Moana is the hopeful movie we need right now
From as early as Moana ambles on the shore, and the sea parts to her childlike wonder, Moana makes you want to bolt out of a darkened theater and leap into the nearest pool. To the villagers living in the secluded island of Motunui, fording the choppy waters beyond the reef is an exercise in futility; the ocean isn’t to be trusted, too mercurial for the best of them. Yet, as Moana discovers from a hidden enclave showed by her grandmother, their ancestors were wayfinders once—master navigators of the high seas, until someone had stolen the jewel from the goddess Te Fiti, a curse had festered, and fewer boats started to appear on the horizon.
Moana’s tale breathes fresh, dewy air into the hero’s journey, more affecting perhaps because it seems borne out of a responsibility for her people rather than any tedium of a sequestered life.
As darkness spreads over Motunui and food becomes scarce, Moana sets sail to put an end to the curse and tracks down the shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a mountain of a man who also happens to be the origin of every natural phenomena, from raising islands out of the sea to pulling the sun closer to the earth. Together, they battle a flotilla of murderous coconut pirates, search for Maui’s stolen mystic fish hook, get briefly outperformed by a showstopping number from a glam rock crab—while Moana descends from a line of sanitized content, this pilfering neon disco ball crustacean is one of those things that can get pretty weird—and face the wrathful Te Ka, a fiery creature that guards the island where Te Fiti’s heart lies.
When the talents behind crowd-pleasing hits “We Know the Way,” “You’re Welcome,” and “Shiny” are Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i, composer Mark Mancina, and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, the music is almost guaranteed to please. But in Walt Disney’s latest attempt to put Pocahontas and The Jungle Book behind them, Moana is ultimately buoyed by Auli’i Cravalho, a young Hawaiian actress whose connection to the Pacific Isles lends heart to the flutes and drums.
At times, there’s a clarity of roles and turns which still draws comfortably from Disney’s usual stories, but Moana succeeds most at pushing a new voice to the fore.
Moana’s tale breathes fresh, dewy air into the hero’s journey, more affecting perhaps because it seems borne out of a responsibility for her people rather than any tedium of a sequestered life. And for all that the movie falls back on the formal conventions of the princess genre, one gets the impression that her companion in this journey isn’t Maui, who’s more bluster than bite, or the dim chicken HeiHei, with a likeability that barely makes the rung above Jar Jar Binks—but a dazzling sea that extends a hand, quite literally, whenever she needs it most. We see the tide tugging, landing her a high five, then finally skipping all pretense and transporting her like a motorcycle across the water. At times, there's a clarity of roles and turns which still draws comfortably from Disney’s usual stories, but Moana succeeds most at pushing a new voice to the fore, offering a richly animated healing balm to the lip-cracked dust bowl that is 2016.