Princesses come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, though Disney’s latest addition to its ever-growing gallery of empowered female heroines — Moana (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of a Pacific Islands chieftain — doesn’t see herself as a princess per se. Even so, as her friend, the Polynesian demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), is quick to point out, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Thankfully, while Moana is going through a pretty serious identity crisis in the new animated movie that bears her name, Walt Disney Animation Studios has resoundingly solved its own, delivering a musical adventure that’s a worthy addition alongside “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” two now-classic cartoons also brought to life by directors John Musker and Ron Clements, whose gift for hand-drawn animation translates beautifully to the realm of CG here.
More than “Tangled,” more than “Frozen,” “Moana” keeps with the tradition that made Disney the leader in animated fairy and folk tales, and yet, showing a thoroughly modern touch, it’s the first to do so without so much as suggesting a love interest. Sure, there are men in Moana’s life, big hulking men shaped like Samoan rugby players with egos of a similar size: Maui wants mortals to adore him, and Moana’s father enforces a rule that no one from their tribe is allowed to venture beyond the shallow reef that encircles their island, Motunui. But the only force Moana answers to is the ocean itself, which behaves quite unexpectedly in an early scene, pulling back the water’s edge so that she can amble in over her head, peering at the sea life all around her as if staring into a giant aquarium.
It’s a magical moment, and one that endears us to both Moana and the ocean for the rest of the film. As if witnessing Buzz Aldrin stare out into space as a child, we’re afforded the opportunity to see an explorer make first contact with her destiny, and if there’s any doubt that this is something special, the film front-loads her story with two exceptional original songs: The first conveys her father’s play-it-safe mantra, “Where We Are,” while the other gives voice to Moana’s own horizon-challenging desires, “How Far I’ll Go” — both the result of an inspired collaboration between “Hamilton” composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, longtime Disney music guru Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i, the lead singer of South Pacific fusion band Te Vaka. Much as “Moana” means “ocean” in Maori, effectively reinforcing the bond between the two, Miranda discovers a near-perfect rhyming connection between “daughter” and “water.”
These two competing forces are as strong as those that control the tide itself, as her dad demands that she remain on land, while Moana dreams of setting sail on a quest to return to its rightful owner the “heart of Te Fiti,” a carved, jade-like stone stolen years earlier by Maui. You can practically hear the swagger in Johnson’s voice as he plays the vain demigod, the depiction of whom has set off some alarm bells among the culturally oversensitive. Frankly, it’s impressive all the myriad ways in which research trips to the region have informed the film’s design, and though Maui may not look like previous artists’ depictions, he’s a thoroughly original character. Plus, his massive size serves a practical function, supplying the canvas for elaborate full-body tribal tattoos, including a “Mini Maui” silhouette whose Jiminy Cricket-like advice is delivered via pantomime (instead of perching on his shoulder, Maui’s conscience is drawn directly onto his skin).
For older audiences, especially those who came of age during the era of “Beauty and the Beast,” much of what follows will seem like Disney boilerplate, but that would be understating the shrewd yet significant ways Musker and Clements innovate. There’s the welcome cultural aspect of the female explorer, of course, plus the fact that the film gives its heroine a healthy, more realistically proportioned physique (reminiscent of the Hawaiian characters in “Lilo & Stitch”), rather than forcing Moana into the mold of past princesses.
Freed of the Barbie body image and over-large Bratz-doll eyes of recent toons, Moana’s expressions seem more consistent with Disney’s classic 2D character form, reflecting all the subtleties of performance possible in hand-drawn animation. At the same time, liberated by the possibilities of CG, the virtual camera is free to swoop and surround the characters in dynamic ways, best reflected in the psychedelic disco thrill of “Shiny,” a musical number performed by Flight of the Conchords singer Jemaine Clement, in the guise of a monster crab. And, of course, there’s the not-insignificant challenge of animating water itself, and though Dory and “The Red Turtle” both swim in the stuff, it has never looked better or boasted more of a personality.
Set mostly on the open sea, which can be as dull a place as the driest desert, “Moana” never lingers long enough for the energy to stagnate. There’s comic relief in the form of Heihei, a real dodo of a rooster, who’s there to supply laughs and sell toys, but otherwise has no business having left the island. Moana, by contrast, is only just beginning to get in touch with her people’s seafaring ways, but takes to the water so naturally she might as well be half-fish — like her distant cousin, “The Little Mermaid,” or Maui, who retrieves his magic fishhook, but is so rusty at shape-shifting that he manages only a shark tail at points (a somewhat restrained reminder of the Genie in “Aladdin”). In other words, the film gives the directors a chance to update what they do best, much as its more independent-minded princess manages to hold her own against the ultra-macho Maui and other rivals, including an army of coconut pirates and Te Kā, a supernatural beast with a volcanic temper.
Naturally, these encounters give the quest-like storyline an episodic feel, and yet the dynamic between Moana and Maui deepens as the story unfolds, revealing her to be one of Disney’s most remarkable heroines yet: Rather than waiting for her prince (or whomever) to come, Moana takes control of her own destiny. Still, there’s a simplicity to the plot here that feels like a step back from the narrative complexity of some of Disney Animation’s recent achievement — most notably “Zootopia,” whose elaborate mystery plot left room for a powerful social message. Considering these two movies side-by-side, one can see how far the toon studio has come in recent years, and rather than judging them against one another (an exercise required only of Oscar voters), there’s something to be celebrated in the way “Zootopia” advances the storytelling possibilities of animation, while “Moana” demonstrates how Disney has gotten its mojo back. As princess movies go, this one broadens the studio’s horizons, and as Moana herself sings in the film, “no one knows, how far it goes.”