When you have a riveting action sequence that seems straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road as well as a tribute to deceased music legend David Bowie, the stage is set for a Disney film that will be out of the ordinary. Add to that the complete absence of romance and a spunky heroine who does not require a man to help her fight her battle, and the picture is complete.
“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” Dwayne Johnson’s Maui tells the eponymous Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho). This meta-comment make it clear that directors Ron Clements and John Muske, who previously made Aladdin (1992) and The Little Mermaid (1989), are not chasing cutesy princesses or reimagined fairy tales.
Moana is the daughter of the village chieftain (voiced by Temuera Morrison) on a fun-filled Polynesian island. But the repercussions of an action by the demi-god Maui millennia ago are being felt now. There are no more fish in the water to catch, and all the coconut plantations are drying up. The answers to these problems lie beyond the reef, the one place all islanders are forbidden from visiting. That is where Moana, also the name of a 1926 documentary by Robert Flaherty about Polynesian culture, comes in. She sets out on her journey of self-discovery armed with little more than a cock-eyed rooster, not dissimilar to the bumbling squirrel Scrat from the Ice Age movies.
Clements and Musker’s first computer-generation animation has the hand-drawn touch of their previous films. A sequence at the end recalls the work of celebrated animator Hayao Miyazaki in Princess Mononoke (1997). Jermaine Clement, one-half of New Zealand folk comedy-rock act Flight of the Conchords, turns in a hilarious performance as a gigantic treasure-loving crab, and his Bowiesque villain song “Shiny” reverberates long after the movie ends. In an inspired bit of casting, the same character has been voiced by disco king Bappi Lahiri in the Hindi dub. The musical numbers, by Lin-Manuel Miranda of the smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton fame, do not have the verve of the recent Disney hit Frozen, nor does the plot have the bite of Zootopia, but the gorgeous visual detailing and Johnson’s booming vocal performance (a version of his character The Rock from his years in wrestling) combine to create an enlivening cinematic outing.