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November 23, 2016

It seems hard to believe that Disney released Zootopia earlier this year. It feels like ages have passed since their ambitious allegory for racial biases landed on what all too often seem like deaf ears. Moana may lack that high-concept ambition, but it more than makes up for it in the sheer quality of its execution.

This is a movie in the modern Disney Princess mold, even more so than Frozen was, this time drawing on the folklore of the South Pacific islands. The herione is Moana (Auliʻi Cravalho), a young woman yearning for self determination and hearing the call of the ocean for which she is named. Her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) insists that no one is to leave Motunui, or even to cross the reef, where the seas grow choppy and violent storms whip up.

But Moana’s grandmother (Rachel House) lets her in on a secret: their people were once voyagers, crossing the ocean on great outrigger canoes, some of which remain hidden on Motunui. They stopped and settled on the island a thousand years ago, when the world outside fell under a curse. The trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the gemstone heart of the goddess Te Fiti, but was stopped in his escape by the lava demon Te Ka, losing both the heart and the magic fishhook from which he draws his power.

As time passes and Moana grows up, the curse starts to affect even their paradise of Motunui. Seeing no other way to save her people, Moana decides to steal one of the canoes, and cross the reef. She must find Maui and make him return the heart of Te Fiti, not only lifting the curse from the island but allowing them to return to their voyaging and adventuring ways.

Moana is among the small handful of Disney Princesses of color, but the movie isn’t being pushed on that count as strenuously as The Frog Prince was. It’s just the natural choice for how to present this story. Another natural choice — though one that Hollywood seems to have flubbed every single time before now — is the almost entirely Polynesian voice cast. Cravalho is Hawaiʻian; Johnson half Samoan; even Jermaine Clement, voicing a giant crab monster they encounter along the way, is half Māori. And Moana herself looks like a young woman who can take the rigors of sailing, rather than the rail-thin sticks that Disney usually offers.

The music also follows suit. The songs fall into modern Disney’s Broadway-inspired pattern, but the bulk are composed by Tokelauan songwriter Opetaia Foaʻi, with some contemporary flavor added by Lin-Manuel Miranda. And I have to say they’re as catchy as most of the classics, without quite leaning over into “Let It Go” earworm status.

If there’s any complaint to be leveled at Moana, it’s that it’s too simple. The story, while a amusing jaunt, demands little of Moana beyond enough determination to stare down the likes of Maui. She has a crisis of confidence, but it’s over in a song. It’s a tale we’ve heard before, but it’s comforting in its familiarity. Besides, we’ve never heard it told in this accent, and there’s something valuable in that.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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