Directors: Ron Clement, John Musker
Voices of: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
3 (out of 5) Globes
This is how dark things are right now: Family films touting stock messages about never giving up feel downright profound. In the latest Disney animated opus, “Moana,” a young Polynesian girl (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) sails solo into the depths of the Pacific, fending off giant crabs, sentient coconut critters and a towering fire monster. Whatever — she’s got nothing on Hillary voters. “Moana” was no doubt created to be an “old school” Disney toon — a return to tradition after the atypically zippy “Zootopia.” That film was an anti-bigotry romp, but “Moana” winds up feeling just as vital. Released two weeks after you-know-what, it comes off as a battle cry, preaching hope when we need it most.
We almost don’t even need to get into identity politics. “Moana” may be retro, right down to its strong, independent heroine. But she’s also the third ever non-white Disney Princess, after “Mulan” and “The Princess and the Frog.” Moana doesn’t get every luxury bestowed upon her kind; there’s no love interest, no fancy dresses, and even she states, wink-winkingly, that she’s “no princess.” But she does get the routine “I want this” ballad. And what she wants is this: to get off her remote island, whose chief (and her father) forbids his charges from venturing past the local reef, for fear of what lies beyond. It’s advice Moana ignores, especially once it’s clear that the recent spate of dying vegetation has to do with a certain magical jewel, which needs to be found then returned to its rightful place in the hands of a storied ocean goddess known as Te Fiti.
What follows is more action-packed than most of Disney’s semi-annual animated features and, doomsday scenario aside, a lot lighter. Moana is joined in her quest by a particularly goofy animal sidekick: a harebrained chicken with bulging Marty Feldman eyes. Soon she scores Maui (Dwayne Johnson), too, a preening, fun-loving demi-god who loves to embellish his triumphs, if not as cravenly as He Who Shall Not Be Named. Their bickering repartee never even threatens to turn into love, which is a nice step forward for feminism yet still makes the film feel ever so slightly undercooked. Make no mistake: “Moana” is a riot of sparkling imagery. Disney animators have rarely been anything but first-rate and forward-thinking, but the latest is unusually retina-searing. Scenes of a solitary raft in the middle of the ocean give our eyes breaks from torrent of loud colors, fantastical (and often silly) creatures, culminating in a rousing climax involving a fiery titan stomping about an archipelago at night.
It’s also a bit paint-by-numbers. Even with Lin-Manuel Miranda writing the songs — another of the film’s accidental political acts, as it turns out — the music is rarely more than base-line “inspired,” with nary an earworm in sight. Even the best are derivative, reminiscent of various Golden Age of Disney chart-toppers: Maui enters the picture with a boastful “Friend Like Me”-esque number, while Jemaine Clement, as a supercilious crab, gets one that could’ve made a killer “Flight of the Conchords” diversion. That Moana is helped at every stretch — by sidekicks, sometimes even by the ocean itself, which tends to curl up into a humanoid shape, a la “The Abyss” — takes some of the wind out of her sails. She’s still inspiring. Casually progressive as it is, what really sells “Moana” is that it is a routine Disney movie. It’s comfort food you’ve been gorging on your entire life, whose ingredients you’ve long taken for granted but can finally taste anew.