Featuring songs by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the new animated musical adventure “Moana” is Disney’s first princess-with-an-asterisk offering since “Frozen.” The “Moana” score’s signature power ballad, “How Far I’ll Go,” may well take its rightful place alongside the earlier film’s big hit, “Let It Go,” in the female-empowerment earworm department. That’s a lucrative department. I prefer Miranda’s contribution; it serves a different story function, and it’s a more traditional “I-want” song, but like the rest of “Moana,” it works.
The film is bright, busy, enjoyable, progressive without being insufferable. It acknowledges its corporate princess dependency in ways that actually make story sense (though its story, attributed to seven writers, gets a little lumpy). Moana, daughter of a Pacific Islands chieftain and future ruler of her tribe, hates being patronized, or told what’s off-limits. On the other hand, her destiny is her destiny. As the Polynesian demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, puts it: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
Voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, Moana is a teenager faced with a dangerous quest. Against her parents’ wishes, she must get in touch with her seafaring ancestry and leave her island, Motunui, to restore the glowing green heart of stone to the goddess Te Fiti.
As relayed by her grandmother in the prologue, the origin story goes like this: The demigod scamp Maui stole the heart-stone but lost his magical fishhook, thus messing up the ecology and well-being of the islands. Moana, accompanied by Heihei, the world’s dumbest chicken, sails away. After a brush with death, she washes ashore on a small island where she meets Maui, an egotistical castaway who eyes her boat, longingly.
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It takes a good deal of the movie for these two to become allies and partners. In the end they must vanquish the lava monster Te Ka, and there are small coconut-clad pirates along the way, escapees from some weird mashup of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Bugsy Malone.” The movie tests its heroine throughout. Does she meet every test? That’s as silly a question as: Will high school drama directors hear a lot of teenage girls singing “How Far I’ll Go” in the coming years?
The animation is digitally photorealistic and pretty gorgeous; the directors John Musker and Ron Clements worked on “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” but those films (which have a lot to recommend them, however un-P.C. their messaging) belong to their recent time and place, and this one to ours.
The score’s the thing here, buoyant and often delightful. Miranda collaborated with Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i on the overall musical tapestry, which owes a little something to “Hamilton,” a little to the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman Disney animation heyday, a little to the sounds of the islands. Johnson (who can rap, at least in small doses) manages the Broadway-ized ode to preening self-regard “You’re Welcome” like a champ. In that number, Miranda jumps off one lyric line ending with “You’re welcome!” straight into a new line of thought beginning with: “Well, COME to think of it … “ It’s a hit-and-run example of the composer and lyricist’s verbal dexterity. I think that “Hamilton” guy has a future.
Voice cast: Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho
Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements
Rated PG (for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)