MOANA (2016), the latest animated film from Walt Disney Pictures, is a winner. MOANA features a strong and engaging heroine in a substantive story, with an appealing Polynesian setting, an effective musical score, and some of the loveliest animation Disney has yet put on film.
Moana (Auli'i Cravelho) has always felt the pull of the sea, which has been encouraged by her grandmother (Rachel House) but strongly warned against by her father, the village chief (Temuera Morrison). Moana's father says everyone must stay on the island to be safe...but as crops fail, fish disappear, and the island begins to die, Moana realizes her destiny is to go to sea to save her people.
Dwayne Johnson plays Maui, a shape-shifting demigod whose theft of a magical heart first sets the story in motion.
Moana is an interesting, multidimensional character who must wrestle with disobeying her father or doing what she believes will bring the island back to life. Similarly, her father is no villain, he's simply trying his best to protect her and the tribe. Even the true villain of the piece ultimately proves to have a sympathetic side.
The story smoothly blends poignance with humor, with the latter provided by both the egotistical Maui and by Moana's very silly pet chicken (Alan Tudyk).
There are three sequences at sea, set to music cowritten by Lin-Manuel Miranda (HAMILTON), which are breathtakingly lovely. The most beautiful of these takes place when Moana sets sail on her journey at night; the animation is simply stunning, combining with emotional storytelling for an unforgettable movie moment. Likewise the sequences depicting the entire tribe sailing, including in the final scene, were so joyous and beautifully rendered they brought tears to my eyes.
Also sublime were early scenes with Moana as a toddler (Louise Bush), in which it is apparent that the ocean is as attached to Moana as she is to it.
In short, MOANA is a film which anyone who loves Disney animation should see. My only real criticism of MOANA is that at 103 minutes it runs a tad too long. Moana and Maui's adventures as they return to her people should have been shortened, particularly the sequence with the crab.
MOANA was directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, and Chris Williams.
Parental Advisory: MOANA is rated PG. The monster visuals may scare the small fry, but otherwise it's family friendly; among other things, I appreciated that unlike in some Disney films, Moana is part of a very functional family. The trailer is here.
MOANA was preceded by the cartoon short INNER WORKINGS (2016). I've loved most Disney shorts in recent years but didn't care for this one at all, finding it both crass and depressingly negative; it only becomes upbeat at the very end of its too-long seven minutes.