As Disney princess movies go, "Moana" tries to set itself apart quickly. Firstly, it's a Polynesian themed story that draws from the folklore and mythology of Pacific Islanders. Secondly, our spunky singing heroine, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) doesn't have a love interest, though she gets two animal sidekicks and a bigger dose of outdated social expectations to combat than usual. She's also one of the most active, taking on a mission to save the world despite not really having the skillset for it. Fortunately, Moana's a quick learner and easy to root for. Finally, there's the presence of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the superpowered demi-god who is supposed to be doing the bulk of the actual fighting and adventuring on their quest - but he's not easily convinced that it's in his best interest to be partnering up with Moana.
The plotting is pretty basic: the whole thing essentially boils down to taking a magical item somewhere, and coming home again. The more interesting dilemma is really Moana working up the courage to leave her island home, Motonui. Her father is the chief (Temuera Morrison), who has forbidden anyone to sail beyond the island's protective reef, and wants Moana to focus on preparing to become their people's next leader. Moana's dotty grandmother (Rachel House), however, encourages her wanderlust. Understandably, the film becomes considerably less compelling once Moana actually sets out on her quest, in spite of all the action sequences eye candy the Disney animators obligingly throw at us. We shift gears to a Moana and Maui "Odd Couple" story, which is diverting, but not nearly as interesting.
"Moana" was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, best known for handling Disney's more comedic features like "Aladdin" and "Hercules." As you might expect, the humor is zingier and there are a couple of pop culture references in the mix, though not many. Maui is the major source of most of the laughs, a demi-god of big muscles and big ego who is covered in tattoos of all his greatest feats. Dwayne Johnson just goes to town with the character, getting across so much high voltage charm that we don't mind so much when he acts like an ass. A big chunk of the film revolves around sailing and navigation, so the ocean is a constant presence. Wisely, the filmmakers decided to just go ahead and make the ocean a character, which usually manifests as a sentient water tendril who gets to join in with the physical humor now and then. I should also mention Hei-Hei, the idiot rooster, who is more walking sight gag than a proper sidekick for Moana.
The songs, from the combined talents of Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Opetaia Foa'i, are decent enough. The influence of South Pacific musical traditions is most clearly evident in "We Know the Way," which is paired with a fantastic sailing sequence. The rest are fairly typical Broadway style fare, though it's great to hear Dwayne Johnson ham up "You're Welcome." Where the film really excells at capturing the Polynesian cultures is in the production design and animation. "Moana" has some of the most beautiful visuals of any modern Disney film, especially the way it handles the ocean effects and the tropical paradise of Moana's home. The film reminded me of "Hercules" frequently, with its mythological characters and the fight scenes with a giant fire demon that really emphasizes the size and scale of the combatants.
As an old school animation fangirl, I was also very heartened to see that Musker and Clements found a way to sneak some traditional animation into the movie. One of Maui's tattoo's is a tiny picture of himself, who is alive and communicates through pantomime. Mini-Maui acts like a Jiminy Cricket figure, chiding Maui for bad behavior and helping with certain bits of exposition. All of the tattoo animation is hand-drawn, and the "You're Welcome" segment incorporates more 2D animation via mixed media visuals. The CGI is all gorgeous, of course, but it's always good to see the old techniques still in use.
In the end, though, the longer the movie went on, the more familiar it got. I started comparing other plot elements to "Pocahontas" and "Mulan," and the characters to any number of familiar predecessors. "Moana" simply isn't very original, though it tries to do many new things and succeeds wonderfully at some of them. Disney fans should enjoy it, though, and I'm hopeful that we'll keep seeing the studio explore unfamiliar cultures this way. "Moana" is not one of the best of the Disney films, but it undeniably belongs in the company of "Frozen" and "Brave" and all the rest.