During the initial meeting between the title character of Disney’s latest animated effort and the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) protests that she is not a princess. His response? “If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” By the time the closing credits roll, the audience has the answer to this particular dispute—they are both right. Moana both embraces and transcends the traditional—and by that, I mean, Disney-fied—“princess film.” After all, dress and sidekick aside, as the daughter and heir of a tribal chief, Moana is, inescapably, a princess. But that does not mean she’s a “Disney princess.” Moana may not be the first film from the House of Mouse to celebrate the grit, will and perseverance of a female lead—Brave’s Merida comes to mind—but it is the first to fully shed the less inspiring baggage of the traditional princess crew. This particular Hero’s Journey comes refreshingly free of male love interest, and Moana’s success or failure rests squarely on her shoulders.
As the eldest child of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) on the island of Motunui, Moana is born to inherit the mantle of her father’s leadership, a responsibility she accepts with but a modicum of reluctance: She’s okay with learning the chief’s duties, but she has an adventurer’s heart and can’t help but wonder what lies beyond the reef surrounding her home. When darkness begins seeping into the land, ruining crops and driving away fish, Moana decides to break her father’s dictate against sailing, and at the encouragement of her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), she determines to track down Maui to convince him to save her people.
Unfortunately, Maui’s an egotistical, recalcitrant, glory-seeking beefcake, and he’s kind of directly responsible for her island’s plight in the first place, having stole (and then lost) the heart of a life-giving island goddess named Te Fiti ages before. Ever since then, monsters have come a-lurking both beneath and above the ocean, including a towering and truly pissed off lava demon named Te Ka. Even as the film follows Moana’s personal growth as she slowly figures out what kind of leader she wants to be, it also represents a redemption quest for Maui as he grudgingly helps Moana on her journey. Thankfully, this secondary arc stays just that—Moana never loses track of whose story this really is.
This dynamic is reflected in the voicework, as well. A Hawaiian actress and singer who has never played a role in a major studio picture in her life, Cravalho faces what could be considered a daunting task. After all, the Artist Formerly Known as The Rock is an entertainer who can vibe with anybody you pair him with and make them look better in the process, but in Moana, the opposite happens—Cravalho is the one who ends up making Johnson look better just by being who she is. That Cravalho carries the weight so ably is nothing short of remarkable. Yes, she has Johnson to help her hold up the film, similar to how one of Maui’s many tattoos shows him holding up the sky, but her talent is obvious and her charm irresistible. Every childless adult in the audience will leave the theater wishing for a kid like Moana. (Most likely a few parents will, too.) Thanks to Cravalho, the script by Jared Bush, and direction by Ron Clements and John Musker, Moana comes across as simultaneously badass, resourceful, and so abidingly compassionate that she’s able to see what most people would miss—even fearsome and powerful supernatural beings have baggage to work through.
2016 has been a strong year for animation, from April and the Extraordinary World to Kubo and the Two Strings, but there may not be a more stunningly rendered effort among the pack than Moana, a movie whose visual rendering is as lush and rich as its subtext. The film’s vibrant, electric color palette washes its frames in bright layers of color, whether in the prelude where Maui makes off with Te Fiti’s heart, in Maui and Moana’s sojourn in the realm of monsters, where they face off with a treasure-encrusted giant crab (Jemaine Clement), or in its climactic confrontation with Te Ka.
Ultimately, it’s this blend of character and quest—infused throughout with an overriding warmth—that makes Moana impossible to resist. Moana presents audiences with a lush cinematic world that they’ll wish they could explore for themselves, but more importantly, it pushes the “princess movie” past its traditional boundaries to portray an honest, invigorating tale of a girl’s self-actualization.
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Writer: Jared Bush
Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement
Release Date: November 23, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.