Motion-picture: How far Moana will go

Moana may seem like Disney’s next addition to its decade-spanning line of animated princess movies, but the film (and its title character) disagree. “I’m not a princess,” Auli’i Cravalho angrily tells the first person to call her one, asserting that she is actually an island chief’s daughter. It’s a seemingly trivial difference, but for both Moana and the movie’s young female audience, it could represent much more. As Disney’s first Polynesian protagonist, Moana embarks on her ocean-crossing adventure with no one but a chicken to help her. She’s an independent diverse hero people need to see. 

The film begins on the beautifully animated tropical island Motunui, where even as a toddler Moana yearns to explore the ocean beyond the reef, which the villagers are forbidden to cross. “Don’t walk away,” Moana’s father Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison, sung by Christopher Jackson) sings to his daughter in the film’s opening musical number, “Where You Are.” “Moana, stay on the ground now. Our people will need a chief, and there you are.”

Moana grows up being told she will never leave as the village will need her to lead them one day, despite her longing to explore. As she transitions into the role, however, the island’s coconuts, its main source of food and other material, begin to decay due to a dark magical force spreading to the island. At the encouragement of Gramma Tala (Rachel House), and against her father’s wishes, Moana embarks to find the demi-god Maui, a shapeshifter who can save the island. “See the light where the sky meets the sea, it calls me,” Moana sings in the film’s most marketable song “How Far I’ll Go” as she sets out on a small, single-sail boat. “No one knows how far it goes.”

The film expertly balances Moana’s bravery with the beauty surrounding her. The film’s directors (Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, and Chris Williams) ensure there’s beauty in every frame, and the ocean’s vastness is portrayed with painstaking detail. The visuals make Moana’s journey both a joy to behold and assign it realism; there’s real danger on the screen when the waves batter Moana’s meager ship and her on an island, for example.

Luckily, though, it’s not just any island. It’s the holding place for Maui, voiced with booming triumph and arrogance by Dwayne Johnson. Maui is destined to be a classic Disney character – his bulbous body is covered in living tattoos that walk around and keep him from misbehaving. His character design is unforgettable, enhanced by his ability to shapeshift into any animal and Johnson’s voice performance. He sees Moana’s arrival as his ticket off the island he’s been stranded on for centuries. “Maui can do anything but float!” he exclaims in his bombastic introduction song “You’re Welcome” (Johnson’s impressive singing debut).

Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote most of the songs, in collaboration with Opetaia Foa’i. Miranda’s unique wordy, pseudo-rap style is prominent in “Where You Are,” the film’s best musical sequence that sets up the film’s themes in the guise of catchy hooks. “We Know The Way” best capture’s the film’s adventurous tone with a roaring chorus lead by Miranda’s vocals. “You’re Welcome” is also a welcome treat that further proves Dwayne Johnson is a well-rounded entertainment force. While there’s no “Let It Go” moment that could preserve the film as a pop culture fixture for months like it did with Frozen, the soundtrack and score are more consistently enjoyable than most Disney outings.

The crowning achievement of the film is definitely Cravalho’s Moana, however. Continuing its female-empowerment trend from Frozen by eliminating the need for princes, the film’s most powerful moments come when Moana must rise up to a challenge without anyone else’s help. The action scenes, while not particularly standout from usual Disney fair in terms of choreography, are enhanced by Moana’s independence and bravery. The film also fully embraces its Polynesian setting, highlighting a fully Polynesian cast of characters and actors. Cravalho makes an impressive debut with her crystal clear singing voice, and is complimented by the material given to portray a well-rounded female hero.

The film dawdles in the middle – scenes featuring adorable but forgettable coconut warriors distract from the film’s shining moments. Viewers will walk out of the theater thanking Disney – to which it will rightfully say, “You’re welcome.”