Out go princes and primping on this Disney Princess voyage. In comes seafaring and world-saving in a visually dazzling, big-hearted crowd-catcher. Moana, Disney’s first Polynesian princess, is a feisty chieftain’s daughter, determined to save her dying island by finding exiled trickster demigod Maui and forcing him to replace the heart-jewel he stole long ago from the island goddess Te Fiti.
Cheekily self-aware and culturally sensitive, the movie insists she’s not royalty but the ocean’s Chosen One, its Pacific waters parting Moses-style around her to create a shimmering aquarium. Although, as Dwayne Johnson’s Maui observes, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick – you’re a princess.”
Using meaty South Sea myths to craft a strong but simple story, the film initially resembles a pretty patchwork of past Disney hits (like many a Mouse House protagonist, the island-trapped Moana yearns for freedom).
That’s perhaps unsurprising, given directors Ron Clements and John Musker are veterans of the ’90s Disney Renaissance (they crafted Aladdin, Hercules and The Little Mermaid (opens in new tab)). But that era’s girl-power animation also feels nimbly rebooted here, via Moana’s Pocahontas-style leadership and Mulan pluck.
The energy soars, however, when Johnson’s selfish, boastful but amiable Maui shows up to give her the run-around, hell-bent on regaining his lost powers without her pesky quest. In another Disney Princess first, theirs is an odd-couple adventure rather than a love story, more True Grit (opens in new tab) than true romance.
Spoofing his he-man persona, Johnson’s feckless Maui sparks great buddy chemistry with newcomer Auli’i Carvalho’s engagingly stubborn Moana. As they power their raft across the ocean into exhilarating action sequences, taking on marauding coconut-clad mini-pirates or battling a sky-filling lava monster, the adrenalin levels surge way past animated fairytale norms.
But while it’s a more than worthy successor, Moana substitutes adventure and empowerment for Frozen (opens in new tab)’s emotional heft. With an eco-conscious story favouring redemption over outright villainy, there’s just a bit less tugging on your heartstrings. As Disney baddies go, Jermaine Clement’s giant treasure-crazed crab Tamatoa is a ball of fun (‘Shiny’, his Bowie-ish disco celebration of all things bling, is a highlight). But he’s no Ursula the Sea Witch.
Still, the tunes in this toon are tip-top, partly crafted by Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda. The standout earworm? ’You’re Welcome’, a sly world-building boast that proves Johnson has pipes as well as pecs.
Coupled with the extraordinary lush visuals and fluid camerawork – moulding the ocean’s many moods and textures till it’s practically a character – Moana essays a rich, vivid feel. It might not be a whole new world, but it’s a fantastic voyage.