PLOT A Pacific island girl must fulfill an ancient quest to save her village.
CAST Voices of Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement
RATED PG (some peril)
BOTTOM LINE A lively adventure driven by an independent heroine and the Broadway-ready songs of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Gorgeous animation, too.
“Princess” is what the demigod Maui calls Moana, the teenage namesake of Disney’s latest animated film. Moana doesn’t want the title — it sounds a little condescending — but Maui persists. “You’re in a dress and you’ve got an animal sidekick,” he points out. “You’re a princess.”
That’s a stereotype Disney itself has helped create since 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but the studio has been steadily updating its attitude for the gender-equal 21st century. “Tangled,” about a rebellious Rapunzel, was an early attempt in 2010, but it was “Frozen” (2013) that turned girl power into box-office gold and topped the Billboard charts with the hear-me-roar anthem “Let It Go.” Although “Moana” may not strike the same chords — despite several catchy songs co-written by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — it’s a spirited and beautifully animated adventure story that never sells its young heroine short.
“Moana” is a Disney movie through and through, directed by old hands Ron Clements and John Musker (“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”). In a mythical version of the Pacific islands, Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho, a 15-year-old newcomer from Hawaii) feels a spiritual connection to the ocean, but her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), won’t allow her beyond the protective reef. When the village crops fail, however, Moana’s Gramma Tala (a wonderful Rachel House) reveals that Moana has a destiny: to right an ancient wrong and restore balance to the world.
That involves sailing her own ship (Moana’s song “How Far I’ll Go” is clearly aiming for “Let It Go” status) and teaming with Maui, a muscular, arrogant demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson. Together, they’ll battle a fleet of adorable little savages called the Kakamora and a treasure-hoarding crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), whose glam-pop number “Shiny” is the film’s best sequence both musically and visually. The animation overall is dazzling, a perfect blend of photorealism and cartoon idealization.
Traditionalists might lament the absence of a love interest, and the film’s two-character structure sometimes cries out for a third. Still, the addition of a Prince Charming would only diminish Moana’s heroic accomplishments. She may be the chief’s daughter, but she’s clearly no princess.