Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) isn’t your average Disney heroine. For one thing, she has no interest in the title of “princess.” She might be the daughter of the chief, but make no mistake, she’d rather be called a “wayfinder” — an oceanic navigator guiding ships throughout the Pacific Ocean. When she encounters the irascible, formidable demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), she’s quick to correct him.
The title character of Disney’s latest animated feature, the Pacific Islands-inspired “Moana,” reflects the evolution of the Disney heroine over the years. She’s smart, strong, resourceful and fully capable of saving herself and others with her wits and physicality. She’s the type of heroine one hopes little girls will want to be like — empathetic, self-reliant, skilled, hard-working, driven to help others.
One thing that might be a bit harder to emulate is her mystical relationship with the ocean surrounding her island home. She’s always been drawn to the gorgeous, crystal turquoise waters (which the animators have rendered in sparkling detail), though her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), guides her away from the ocean and toward her leadership duties on land. But Moana can’t resist the ocean’s siren call, especially after her playful, rebellious Gramma Tala (Rachel House), describes how the ocean chose Moana to return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, stolen by mischievous demi-god Maui.
So Moana sets out beyond the reef to find Maui, retrieve his magical fishhook, and return the heart to Te Fiti, battling ferocious coconut warriors and miserly crabs and the lava monster Taka in the process. She and the arrogant Maui share a prickly alliance forged by their shared goals.
The beautiful neon-pastel island scenery is bolstered by instant ear-worm musical numbers, written by Tony-award winning “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i, along with composer Mark Mancina. Be prepared for Moana’s soaring inspirational anthem “How Far I’ll Go” to replace “Let It Go” from “Frozen” imminently.
But aside from the visual delights, remarkable heroine and instant-classic soundtrack, what comes through so beautifully in “Moana” is the care and attention to detail the filmmakers have put to rendering a story about the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. The religious folklore and tradition of voyaging that make up the story have been well-researched, with important input from native people.
The film is richer for its attention to heritage, going far beyond surface aesthetics, building the foundation of “Moana” on the values and beliefs that make up this culture. “Moana” will warmly fill your heart and soul, and set your imagination soaring across the sea.
Voices: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger.
Directors: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, Chris Williams.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 113 minutes. Scary images, peril. Playing at area theaters.