Being the daughter of a Pacific Island chief, young Moana is technically a princess. In fact, halfway through her namesake Disney movie, she’s told, “if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” It’s a sly wink, of course, but it also serves to remind us how far the Disney Princess has evolved over the years.

Not only does Moana feature a strong (decidedly un-princess) female lead, it more than passes the Bechdel Test, and it’s a return to the high-quality, imminently entertaining and refreshing Disney animated films we’re used to (after that unfortunate, preachy Zootopia hiccup).

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho voices Moana, who is chosen by the ocean to reverse a thousand-year-old curse set in motion when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the gemstone heart of the goddess Te Fiti. His actions are now slowly causing the death of Moana’s home island of Motunui, so she makes it her mission (with her grandmother’s urging and despite her father’s admonition to stay out of the open ocean) to find Maui and have him make things right.

With her numbskull sidekick rooster Heihei along for the ride, the teenage Moana eventually finds Maui, but their voyage is just getting going. After battling not only each other and an armada of marauding coconut creatures, Moana and Maui must learn to work together to defeat the bling-addicted crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) in a hilarious, 3D-riffic scene. And then it’s on to face the scary lava monster at the end of their trip.

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who rebooted Disney’s hand-drawn animation house with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, helm Moana with the same attention to detail, story, and whimsical animation. Though 99% of the film is computer-animated, its heart and soul isn’t lessened in the least; it remains a delightful and inspiring story of a young girl stepping up to the plate to change her world.

The plot itself isn’t terribly game-changing (the first half is pretty much Finding Nemo and the second half is every movie that has two adversaries putting aside differences to defeat a common enemy), but the script by Jared Bush is as inventive and funny as you could want. Full of both snappy dialogue and hilarious sight gags, Moana is legitimate all-ages entertainment.

Powering the film even further is the best music this side of (and maybe even before) Frozen. Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda crafted the witty and catchy musical numbers along with New Zealand native Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina provides a driving score that helps propel the action.

Disney Animation’s next planned feature is 2018’s sequel to the frothy, overcooked, and deep-as-a-puddle Wreck-It Ralph, so it may be a case of one step forward, one step back─giving us even more reason to revel in the splendor of Moana as long as possible. All hail the un-princess.


4.5/5 stars

Worth the 3D glasses?

Clements and Musker certainly don’t skimp in the 3D department, and being set on the open ocean, Moana offers plenty of opportunity for things like waves and water drops and rain and marauding coconut creatures to jump out of the screen. You won’t have a bad experience if you don’t drop the extra cash, but it’s worth it if you do.