Disney’s latest animated musical “Moana” is so good it could prompt a new catchphrase in the Burbank HQ of The Mouse.
A moving, hilarious and stunningly-animated adventure epic, it’s about remembering who you are, living up to your potential, daring to reach for the horizons and not being content with the status quo.
It is an instant classic, a near masterpiece and the best Disney animated film since its last Golden Age, which produced “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King.” It’s almost as ambitious and more visually striking than Pixar’s recent best — “Inside Out.”
“Moana” is about a child raised in the Polynesian myths of her native Hawaii. The title character is the daughter of the chief (voiced by Maori actor Temuera Morrison). In song, he and his people counsel the child to “find happiness right where you are…The Island gives us what we need.”
In other words, “Don’t go beyond the reef” that surrounds their island.
But as she grows into a teen, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) sees the coconut blight and declining fish stocks around their island. Her grandmother (Rachel Rose) reminds her of the legend of Maui, the demi-god who stole a magic stone that foretold the doom to come. Grandma shows the girl their hidden past as great voyagers, “way finders,” sailing their huge outrigger canoes across the Pacific. Moana resolves to right Maui’s wrong, to sail beyond the reef that her father so fears and return that “heart” stone to the island goddess to whom it belongs.
There are hints of “Finding Nemo” in the plot — an overprotective and fearful father, worrying of the dangers his child might face “beyond the reef.” As a depiction of foreign culture and legend, this is “Pocahontas,” without being patronizing, “Mulan” with funnier combat.
Moana, who doesn’t know how to sail and needs the help of the sea — a plastic, sentient spirit here, literally “the Living Sea.” Maui is in exile, a shape-shifter who has lost his magic fish hook. Moana will fetch him and the hook and make him return the green “heart” stone to its owner.
Only Maui is played — that’s the only word for it — by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The “demi-god of the wind and sea” arches his eyebrow, wisecracks and wiggles his muscles in near-perfect imitation of the Polynesian footballer/wrestler/actor. Johnson’s deadpan way with a line rivals Disney’s go-to funnyman Patrick Warburton in timing and simple vocal dexterity.
He teases and taunts the “princess,” who doesn’t want to be called that, especially in a Disney movie.
“If you’re in a skirt and have an animal sidekick (a loony chicken), you’re a princess.”
Maui, a Promethean trickster/helper-of-humans, is covered in tattoos, which are animated and serve as Maui’s personal history and his conscience. The ink is literally at war with his priorities, making for one of the best animated sight gags ever.
Moana and Maui will battle wee pirates and vast lava monsters on their quest, stop for song with a hoarding crab monster (Jemaine Clement) who croons of his love for shiny things, menacingly rhyming shiny with “Now it’s time to kick your hiney.”
Will Moana, a wonderfully girl-empowering character with wit, pluck and heart, learn to sail, to be a “way finder,” to be the person her people “need you to be?” Can you say “Disney ending?”
The songs, a mix of Polynesian choral pieces and “show tunes” by “Hamilton” Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, are witty in that “Under the Sea” vein without being sing-along catchy. The longing song, “How Far I’ll Go” doesn’t add up to another “Let It Go.” But Johnson singing his “I’m Maui” introductory number, “You’re Welcome,” is a stitch. And Flight of the Conchords vet Clement’s “Shiny” feels like a sure Oscar nominee, this film’s “Be Our Guest.”
It’s a bit long, and a middling Disney short titled “Inner Workings” is unnecessarily attached to it adding to that length. But “Moana,” along with this spring’s “Zootopia,” shows that Disney Animation has finally reached parity with its corporate sibling, Pixar. And with middling sequels like this summer’s “Finding Dory” and the upcoming “Cars 3” in the Pixar pipeline, maybe “parity” is selling Walt Disney Animation short.
MPAA Rating:PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Credits:Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements, Don Hall, Chris Williams, script by Jared Bush. A Walt Disney release.
Running time: 1:50