MOANA (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for peril, some scary images, and brief thematic elements)
Released: November 23, 2016
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Ron Clements & John Musker
Starring: Auli’I Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger

And a girl shall lead them.

That’s the empowering fulcrum on which Moana not only turns but soars. It’s the latest uplifting spectacle from Walt Disney Studios Animation that, following this spring’s Zootopia, firmly elevates Disney Prime (which includes burgeoning live action reimaginings ala The Jungle Book) above fellow corporate cousins Marvel and Pixar as the most consistently creative brand in Hollywood today. Even the pre-feature short Inner Workings, a creative and sentimental fable about following your heart, is a testament to their renewed ascendent prestige.

In short, if Disney made it then you should see it, and Moana carries that name’s legacy with eye-popping, soul-stirring brilliance. It’s a fable filled with magic, humor, songs, thrills, and wonder, and will appeal to all sensibilities (this ain’t just for kids or girls). And while it won’t boast a “Let It Go” phenomenon from its musical songbook, this heroine’s power anthem “How Far I’ll Go” will no doubt be belted out by girls everywhere.

Grafting familiar beats from Pocahontas and The Lion King for its initial premise (don’t worry, her father isn’t killed), veteran Mouse House directors Ron Clements and John Musker actually craft an inventive original tale not based on a previous source, one that takes playful self-referential jabs at Disney archetypes and formulas.

Yet in the hands of this duo that brought us Aladdin and The Little Mermaid (the spirit of both can be felt here), Moana doesn’t mock or undermine the Disney tradition. On the contrary, it fits squarely into the mold that fueled the studio’s 1990s renaissance. It also explores rich thematic depths, lamenting what’s lost when you forget who you are, not just as a person but as a people, tribe, or nation. In that sense, this latest Disney offering – though years in development and production – is surprisingly relevant in the wake of the Presidential election it follows.

Moana is the daughter of a Pacific Island chief whose tribe still lives according to customs that have been passed on for generations. Their culture is peaceful but secluded, intentionally isolated. Moana is heir to the throne but, as she matures, feels called to more; not to abandon her path, but to help her people rediscover their rich heritage. It remains a mystery, however, as superstitions and fears keep it from being spoken of. But Moana isn’t just a risk-taker; she’s a girl of destiny.

Helping her aspire to that calling is her grandmother, Gramma Tala. She has her own spunky rebellious streak but still mentors Moana by ancient wisdom. Their relationship is a refreshing tweak on the usual parent/child dynamic, and it’s nice to see the bond between grandmother and granddaughter have such a strong formative influence and deep emotional connection.

This affirming guidance inspires Moana to embark on a daring adventure across the sea. It’s a rip-roaring one, rendered on a grand scale; as sweeping, colorful, and awesome as any we’ve seen before (and worth the 3D experience, though not vital). And appropriately, Moana has a more muscular build than the customary waif-like “princess” frame.

She seeks out the demigod Maui, who has seclusion issues of his own. Their Oil & Water conflict is fodder for lots of laughs and dramatic tension, as are their opposing goals, but their fates are inextricably linked. This dynamic mixture is embodied in the comic and endearing chemistry between first-time performer Auli’I Cravalho as the Polynesian princess and Dwayne Johnson (who sings his own songs!) as Maui.

It’s also vibrantly captured in songs co-written by Tony-winning Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even though rap and hip-hop don’t have a major presence here (the comic crab song “Shiny” is actually more Bowie-esque), these songs still bear Miranda’s signature style, recognizable to anyone who’s been swept up in the Hamilton zeitgeist.

Simultaneously classic and contemporary, Moana is the first Disney Princess movie to eliminate the notion that a Prince must somehow define (even if just in part) a woman’s identity, hopes, or dreams. Yes, Frozen was fundamentally about sisterhood, but even that had its Prince Charming subplot (though told with brilliant subversion). Thankfully, Moana doesn’t smugly disparage romance or true love; it simply never goes there.

It’s also not ideologically compelled to hammer home perfunctory “girls can do whatever boys can do” gender battles; confidently, it works from an assumption of equality. This is the rare hero’s journey with a heroine at the center, yet it never strikes a progressively preachy posture. It doesn’t need to. By implication, it suggests that neither do we. Now that’s empowering.

Moana displays a warrior’s spirit, but not at the expense of her femininity. In fact, at a particular moment of truth, she must choose a more feminine courage: to extend faith and grace, even in the face of a formidable evil. Those virtues are weapons of a different sort, more vital than even a demigod’s powers, born not just of bravery but of love.

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