Voices by Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Written by Jared Bush. Rated PG.
When Hollywood talks about “diversity,” they usually mean blacks and Latinos. Asian-Americans barely register with them, and Pacific Islanders aren’t on the radar at all. This is true even though a Pacific Islander, Dwayne Johnson, has carved out a nice career there for himself as a leading man. So we owe something to Disney for putting out Moana, an animated musical set on a Pacific Island and cast largely with actors from that region, including Johnson. This may not be the most innovative thing we’ve seen from the studio, but it’s more than likable enough.
The story takes place some time in the past, on an island called Motunui. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is descended from a long line of chiefs, and though she longs to venture out into the wider ocean, her father (voiced by Temuera Morrison) forbids anyone to go there. However, with her people catching less fish and harvesting fewer coconuts, Moana’s grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) recognizes that her granddaughter has been particularly blessed by the ocean and gives her a mission: Moana must find the trickster demi-god Maui (voiced by Johnson) and force him to restore balance to the waters. She sails out into the unknown, accompanied only by an exceptionally dimwitted rooster.
There’s some historical basis to the story. After exploring the waters with great success, the ancient Polynesian settlers apparently stopped their voyages for hundreds of years, the reason for which is lost to history. The directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker have been at the helm of Disney animated musicals since The Little Mermaid, and they stick so closely to the template that you can predict exactly where “How Far I’ll Go,” Moana’s song about her wish to explore the world, will land in the movie. Of course, her dad is given a traumatic backstory to neatly explain why he’s so adamant about keeping her from the ocean. The script even comments on where Moana lies in the product line. When she protests that she’s not a princess, Maui says, “You wear a dress, you have an animal sidekick — you’re a princess.” I do wish this movie had tried to fluster our expectations a bit, the way Frozen did so successfully.
Thankfully, there’s some strong voice work in the two main roles. A 16-year-old Hawaiian newcomer, Cravalho betrays no sign of being overawed by the pressure of a lead role of a Disney musical. Fierce and funny with just enough trepidation underneath the surface, she sings in a forceful, juicy mezzo on “How Far I’ll Go” and “Know Who You Are.” As for Johnson, he might just have the role of his career here. As the genial, full-of-himself Maui who’s vain about his hair and his tattooed body, Johnson offers a voice and personality that fill the screen the way they never did in his action-hero roles. He gets the best song in the film, too, as Maui sings and raps an ode to his own awesomeness, “You’re Welcome.” (“When the nights got cold / Who stole you fire from down below? / You’re lookin’ at him, yo.”)
That last song is the first instance I can recall of rap being used in a Disney musical, and if there’s one songwriter you’d trust to take Disney into that territory, it’d be the creator of Broadway’s Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is the writer of that song and gives the movie world its first taste of his seemingly inexhaustible wit. He shares composing duties with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, and while their other efforts don’t reach similar heights, some of the choruses in Fijian are performed in awe-inspiring manner.
Moana’s female-empowerment message may not be as thoroughly worked out as it is in a movie like Whale Rider, but it is an enjoyable family film for the holidays that showcases the work of many actors of Polynesian descent. If some of those actors wind up gracing our screens in more movies to come, we’ll have even more reason to be grateful for it.