Adding to the studio’s stable of multicultural princesses (although the title character points out she’s merely the daughter of a chief), the movie begins and ends strongly, which should compensate for a flat stretch in the middle that, not coincidentally, is right around the time when the demigod known as Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, shows up.
People magazine’s newly anointed Sexiest Man Alive might be a great marketing hook (and he even sings), but Maui’s arrival shifts the movie onto a different track — from a young girl’s emotional coming-of-age story to something more broad and jokey. While there’s obvious calculation in that — hey, let’s be sure to appeal to boys as well as girls — it temporarily knocks the movie off course, before “Moana” regains the wind at its back as it cruises to the finish.
Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) grows up in an idyllic Polynesian island paradise, where the only rule laid down by her father is not to venture beyond the reef. But his daughter yearns to explore, which she announces in a song titled “How Far I’ll Go” (not to be confused with “Frozen’s” “Let It Go”), the kind of show-stopping anthem that, with Cravalho’s soaring belt, would bring a legit theater crowd to its feet.
As it turns out, Moana has a good reason to get out and see the world, and not just because her sage old grandma urges her to do so. That’s because the aforementioned Maui stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, and the island her people call home will essentially shrivel and die if Moana can’t locate Maui and convince him to join her on a perilous journey that will involve, among other things, facing off against a giant lava monster.
The ornate mythology of it all — in a film directed by the teams behind “The Princess and the Frog” and “Big Hero Six,” and that credits its story to seven writers — risks becoming a trifle overwhelming exposition-wise. There’s also a certain rote quality to the impediments thrown at Moana and Maui as they traverse the ocean bickering, as much killing time before the climax as allowing the two to bond.
What makes it work, ultimately, is an intoxicating blend of music and sweeping, luminous vistas. Infused with magic throughout, even the ocean serves as a key character, while Moana blossoms into about as brave and plucky a heroine as any Disney has produced.
As a bonus, “Moana” is also paired with one of Disney’s best recent shorts, “Inner Workings,” which chronicles the age-old battle between our hearts and our heads with remarkably efficiency. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of the studio.)
Disney’s marketing for the movie promotes its “Frozen” lineage, although catching the sort of massive wave that blockbuster rode three years ago seems unlikely.
Overall, though, this is a wholly satisfying family movie, released at a time when people are probably hungry for one. So even if “Moana” is occasionally guilty of treading water, Disney’s latest animated voyage goes far enough as a feast for the eyes and ears to give fans plenty for which to be thankful.
“Moana” opens November 23 in the U.S. It’s rated PG.