Starring the Voices of :Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Rachel House, Jemaine Clement, Temuera Morrison
Directed by: Ron Clement, John Musker, Don Hall and Chris Williams

Written by: Jared Bush
Rated: PG
Running Time: 103 Minutes

With the roll Disney’s been on this year – both creatively and commercially – it’s hard not to imagine Moana knocking it out of the park. Yet at the same time, it’s a bit of a surprise that any studio could maintain a streak like Disney has. With two animated blockbusters already out this year – complete with critical accolades that any producer would envy – they seemed primed for a letdown. That letdown is going to have to wait.

Moana returns to the princess formula that has served the studio so well, and yet finds such a new and invigorating way of expressing it that it might as well be served fresh. That’s one of Disney’s tricks, of course: wrapping nostalgia and formula into a winning new package that respects the past while finding ways to move it all forward. The combination of talents, creativity and technical expertise here is so flawless that we forget how tough it is to pull something like that off.

It starts with the visuals, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more stunning piece of eye candy this year. Moana would be worth recommending solely for imagery, presenting a timeless, mythic vision of the Pacific Islands so beautiful it can stun you into silence. Co-director Ron Clements has been in the ocean before – his resume includes The Little Mermaid – but that effort used traditional animation. Here, he and co-directors John Musker, Don Hall and Chris Williams shift effortlessly to CGI, and the advances made in terms of the imagery leave even this summer’s fantastic Finding Dory hustling to catch up.

Upon that canvas they paint a somewhat familiar story: a community in danger, a princess (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) who sets out to make things right, a host of adventures waiting just beyond the horizon to test her skills and resolve. The Polynesian setting gives it the necessary distinction, steeped in the folk tales and culture of the locale. But the story itself is instantly recognizable and as comforting as a warm blanket. It’s a tricky combination, and yet the script makes it look easy, wavering only slightly from time to time and never losing its balance.

Naturally, Moana gains some help on her path, largely in the form of Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), a mischievous demigod who looks out for Number One, but can be induced to lend a hand with the right motivation. (There’s also a chicken, but he’s less useful.) They must battle not only the fury of a beautiful-yet-unforgiving ocean, but giant crabs, lava monsters and our heroine’s own self-doubts to find her people’s place in the sun. Their solutions to these challenges aren’t unexpected, but also reflect the spirit of the place. That lends it some surprises that help keep the story from descending into cliché.

The musical numbers rock, of course, but with songwriters Lin-Manuel Miranda and New Zealand musician Opetaia Foa’i, they attain a fresh spirit and a reinvigorated sense of beauty. Miranda is shaping up to be Disney’s new Howard Ashman, with the Mary Poppins sequel still to come, and listening to his work here makes that prospect a whole lot less nerve-wracking. Foa’i fills in the cultural gaps, and their combined efforts aptly reflect the entire film: of a kind with previous Disney efforts, but finding its own special rhythm that resembles nothing we’ve seen before.

Indeed, it’s hard to find any part of Moana that doesn’t shine: a sunny, gorgeous emotionally heartfelt treat for a world desperately in need of a little comfort. The biggest danger is coming across as too shallow – paying lip service to Polynesia, but otherwise sticking to routine fairy-tale formula. Nothing doing. The talent is too strong and the concept too unique to leave us with a second-rate feature. We should have expected it, of course, but it still comes as pleasant reassurance. In a year so strong in animated features, Disney isn’t prepared to let quality slip. Our Thanksgiving is just a little bit happier as a result.




Our Score

By Rob Vaux

A Southern California native, Rob Vaux fell in love with the movies at an early age and has been a professional critic since the year 2000. His work has appeared on Flipside Movie Emporium, Mania.com, Collider.com and Filmcritic.com as well as the Sci-Fi Movie Page. He lives in the heart of surfer country and still defends the Star Wars prequels against all logic and sanity.

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