Chief Tui's (voice of Temuera Morrison) daughter has had an idyllic life on their Pacific island of Motunui, but as she comes of age, blight is affecting their coconut crop and fish no longer swim within their reef, the boundary her father has set for his people. Gramma Tala (voice of Rachel House, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople") has long told her the tale of Te Fiti, the mother island whose heart had the power to create life until it was stolen by demi-god Maui (voice of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). After finding the ancient crafts her ancestors used on the great oceans, the young princess defies her father to find Maui, restore her island and achieve her destiny as "Moana."
2016 hasn't been a great year for animation. Sure, "Zootopia" was smart, but it didn't touch Pixars' best. "Finding Dory" was a solid sequel and there have been a couple of very good foreign offerings, but nothing to send one over the moon. Now we have "Moana," a movie that follows the Disney playbook, for sure, but does it so well, even winking at it, that it is transcendently delightful from start to finish. Maybe injecting those crazy New Zealand "what We Do in the Shadows" guys Jermaine Clement (he voices giant crab Tamatoa) and Taika Waititi (one of the writers) provided some extra inspiration to writer/directors Ron Clements & John Musker ("Aladdin," "The Princess and the Frog") with codirectors Don Hall and Chris Williams and cowriters Jared Bush ("Zootopia") and Pamela Ribon.
Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho) is an adorable baby when she first hears about Te Fiti. One day, the toddler spies a baby turtle trying to make it to the ocean without being picked off by the predators lying in wait, so she shelters it to the water's edge. The ocean responds by leading her to a conch, then to Te Fiti's heart, but Moana's too young to recognize it for what it is. Still, she's been chosen and her Nana, who communes with the ocean (especially the manta rays she has tattooed on her back) knows it. And so it is the chief's mother who helps the beautiful young woman Moana becomes to defy him. Alas, it is the last thing she does.
After a disastrous first attempt at cresting that reef with her terrified pet pig, Moana sets sail on one of the long hidden, ancestral vessels with Hei Hei the Rooster (voice of Alan Tudyk) and glides over it. After an arduous journey, she finds Maui, the pumped up, self-regarding demi-god who has no interest in helping until she plays to his ego. The man rejected by his human parents will be a hero she promises. But first they must outsmart murderous coconut pirates called the Kakamora, Tamatoa (voice of Jemaine Clement), the giant crab who guards treasures and deal with another crisis when Maui's magical fishhook, which gives him the ability to shapeshift, is damaged. Abandoned by Maui, Te Ka, the demon of earth and fire begins to look unbeatable, but Moana won't go down without a fight.
As Maui points out, 'if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess.' The movie also has its own version of Jiminy Cricket in 'mini Maui,' Maui's pectoral tattoo that acts as his conscience (Maui's body is covered in tattoos that not only chart his history, but sing and dance, much like "Hercules'" Grecian urn muses). Above all, the animation team has surpassed themselves, Disney's big-eyed Moana almost photorealistic with a naturally defined clavicle and suprasternal notch, her hair undulating in individual strands. We see this attention to detail in Gramma Tala too, whose upper body reflects her age. One might even believe one could set sail on this ocean were it not for its "Abyss-like" anthropomorphization. Pua the pig is endearing, Hei Hei, the Herzogian definition of a chicken, comic relief. The film is buoyed by seven original songs, including Dwayne Johnson's rousing performance of 'You're Welcome,' written by 'Hamilton's' Lin-Manuel Miranda. The percussive score is inspired by traditional Pacific Island music.
"Moana" is the best Disney animation to come down the pike since 2011's undervalued "Winnie the Pooh." It is joyous, courageous, compassionate, ecologically minded and funny, a rare treat.
"Moana" is preceded by Leo Matsuda's short "Inner Workings," an anatomical response to the emotions of "Inside Out" in which an office drone's brain denies the pleasures his heart, stomach and other organs yearn for. It's the perfect amuse-bouche for what follows.
Robin did not see this film.
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