It’s a return to the sea for directors John Musker and Ron Clements with their newest animated release, “Moana.” In 1989, the duo helmed “The Little Mermaid,” the film credited with starting the second golden era of animation at Walt Disney Studios. (“Little Mermaid” fans will want to stay through “Moana’s” end credits for a humorous tribute to the 1989 classic.)
With “Moana,” Musker and Clements have brought the story of the brave and compassionate daughter of a Polynesian chief to the screen. This time, the ocean itself plays a major role, interacting with Moana, whose name translates to “ocean” in some Polynesian languages.
The plot centers on Moana’s (Auli’i Cravalho) discovering her strengths. Raised on the island of Motunui, she has been fascinated by the ocean ever since she was a toddler. Her Gramma Tala’s (Rachel House) tales of Maui also intrigued Moana.
One day the ocean opens up, offering Moana beautiful shells and the lost heart of Te Fiti. Legend says this heart, which offers the power of creation, was stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson). His thievery damaged Te Fiti and angered Te Ka, a lava monster who pursued Maui. During the fight, Maui lost his magic fishhook and Te Fiti’s heart.
When the island of Motunui begins to decay, Moana believes the cure lies in her ancestors’ seafaring tradition. But her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), forbids anyone to go beyond the protective reef. Not fearing the water, Moana follows her grandmother’s advice to locate Maui so he can restore the heart of Te Fiti and bring balance back to Motunui.
Musker and Clements cast Pacific island talent for the lead vocals in “Moana.” High school sophomore Auli’i Cravalho, born in Hawaii, brings a fresh, upbeat, independent vibe to the title role of Moana. She co-stars with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who voices Maui, the Polynesian demigod (half god, half human). Well-known for his WWE wrestling career and lead roles in the “Fast and Furious” movies, Johnson honors his Samoan roots by playing the trickster/shape-shifter deity credited with creating the Pacific islands and harnessing the sun.
Representing the Maori of New Zealand are Rachel House and Temuera Morrison. House is Gramma Tala, Moana’s guide who shares her granddaughter’s love of the sea. Morrison voices Chief Tui, Moana’s caring but overly protective father.
Moana’s animated adventures are captured in vivid tropical colors. Anyone who has visited a Pacific island will recognize the accuracy of the color spectrum: warm browns, lush greens, brilliant blues, fiery reds and glowing yellows.
Reflecting the Polynesian connectedness to the ocean, the animation team’s work on the sea reveals the water’s various dispositions. When toddler Moana and the ocean first become friends, the water is a tranquil aqua. Rounded and gentle in shape, its translucence revealing its treasure of shells and sea life. Later, when a storm rages, the waters takes on a dark, energetic, and choppy personality.
As with many of Disney’s animated films, “Moana” is a musical. Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Broadway’s “Hamilton”), and Opetaia Foa’i are the creative team behind the soundtrack. The melodies are lively and the lyrics witty. Composer Mancina judges a song as strong if he leaves the theater with the music still playing in his head. Unfortunately, “Moana’s” complex lyrics decrease the likelihood the film’s audience will remember many of the songs after exiting the movie theater.
The most inspiring number, “How Far I’ll Go,” belongs to Moana. Despite being a newcomer to professional singing, Cravalho gives a strong, emotional performance. Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” introduces the character of Maui and his ego. Probably the catchiest tune on the soundtrack, “You’re Welcome” also plays well as a rap song (performed by Jordan Fisher and Lin-Manuel Miranda) during the end credits.
The least memorable tune is “Shiny,” the theme song of monster crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement). Unfortunately, “Shiny’s” intricate lyrics are paired with extensive on-screen action; ultimately the song becomes a bit lost.
Where “Moana” really delivers is in its storytelling, visuals, and the relationships between the characters. In addition to the English language version of the film, “Moana” will also receive a Tahitian language release.