The animated musical adventure "Moana" is the cherry on top of a sweet year for Disney that also includes "Zootopia" and "The Jungle Book." It's also no coincidence that "Moana" gets the same Thanksgiving-week release that the juggernaut "Frozen" did in 2013. Those Disney execs are no fools. They are hoping lightning strikes twice. Will "Moana" reach "Frozen" heights? It could. The songs -- written by "Hamilton's" Lin-Manuel Miranda are zippy and catchy and ready to conquer the world a la "Let It Go." This time, though, the song is called "How Far Will I Go," and it's a girl-power anthem, beautifully sung by newcomer Auli'I Cravalho, the 15-year-old Hawaiian native voicing the title character.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker ("The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "The Princess & the Frog"), "Moana" has more going for it than musical pedigree. It tackles themes of identity, self-worth, culture and family, and features a lead character who is not a classic Disney princess in peril. She's refreshingly fierce, feisty and determined.
She is the high-spirited daughter of Chief Tui (voice of Temuera Morrison), the ruler of the island of Motuni in the South Pacific. Moana comes from a long line of "wayfinders" and is next in succession to rule the island, which is suddenly threatened with disease and famine. Drawn to the sea (her name means "ocean"), Moana sets sail to save her people by fulfilling an ancient mission by returning a green mystical stone to the island's goddess. Problem is her father has forbidden her to go "beyond the reef," a place where nothing good happens. Beloved grandma Talla (Rachel House) -- who is a bit off her rocker -- encourages her to go "find who you are meant to be."
"Moana" gets off to a slow, eye-rolling start because of the plethora of cliches and platitudes. The toe-tapping songs from Miranda, Tony-winning composer Mark Mancina and noted Pacific Islander musician Opetaia Foa'I, keep you rolling along. The whole set-up is like a Broadway musical, which is light on narrative and heavy on song and spectacle. Speaking of the sights, the animation is so lush and vibrant, it might be Disney's best ever.
The movie kicks into gear when Moana meets the once-mighty demigod Maui (voice of the magnetic Dwayne Johnson), a magical shapeshifter who wields a fish hook. He reluctantly guides Moana in her quest, teaching her to sail and navigate by the stars. They bicker and banter, like big brother and little sister. Johnson infuses the film with some much-needed energy. He's having a blast playing Maui with the same bravado and swagger he always brings, right down to the raised eyebrow and pec pops. Maui's massive body is covered in tattoos that become animated and act as his conscience. It's a clever gimmick. The Rock also sings. And the big dude can carry a tune, belting out the song "You're Welcome," about all the ways Maui has saved humanity. Jemaine Clement has a memorable bit as a kleptomaniac crab and sings a saucy David Bowie-type song. Alan Tudyk plays Hei Hei, a dumb-cluck chicken sidekick who provides comic relief.
Moana might be extremely pretty, possess amazing hair, wear a cool dress and have royal blood, but she's no typical princess needing rescue. She's her own heroine, and that's such a strong show of empowerment for girls of all ages.
-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson.
(PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.)