Unwilling to fix what ain’t broke, Disney hews pretty closely to its usual narrative structure in “Moana,” while at the same time further expanding its geographical boundaries far from the original Germanic fairy tales that provided the studio’s stories for so many decades. Rather than revel in the South Seas kitsch that gave us the Enchanted Tiki Room, this adventure pays fitting tribute to both the natural beauty and the creation myths of the Pacific Islands.
We begin here with one such myth, as Te Fiti, mother island and creator of all things on earth, has her gem-heart stolen by trickster demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), who uses his magical hook to shape-shift into birds and sea creatures of all sizes. Te Fiti is left as a husk of herself, while lava monster Te Kā attacks Maui, sending both the heart and the hook to the bottom of the sea.
This tale is told to young Moana by her Gramma Tala (Rachel House, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) on the day that the child has a memorable encounter with the sea, which has clearly chosen her to restore both missing items to their rightful owners. Teenage Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) has a constant hankering to travel beyond the reef that surrounds her island, but her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), wants her to stay put and prepare herself for the day that she becomes chief herself.
But when the coconuts start rotting on the trees and the fish disappear from the waters, Moana realizes that her destiny is to sail the seas to find Maui and to make him return the heart to Te Fiti to restore balance to the universe. Easier said than done, of course, even with the sea itself looking out for Moana’s welfare. Maui turns out to be a vain jerk who tries to ditch her and steal her boat, and Moana’s pet rooster Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), possibly one of the dumbest creatures on two legs, has stowed away on the journey.
It’s a Disney musical, so you can pretty much guess all the beats, from Moana’s number where she sings about her desire to travel the oceans (it’s kind of like “The Little Mermaid” in reverse) to the fulfillment of her destiny. But if we’re looking at the journey at not the destination, “Moana” is thoroughly entertaining if never completely groundbreaking. (For one thing, it’s a movie that’s self-aware enough to comment upon the fact that it’s yet another Chosen One story but not — repeat, not — a princess tale.)
For “Frozen,” Disney hired Robert Lopez right on the heels of his Tony-winning musical “The Book of Mormon,” and they got “Let It Go”; this time, they’ve snagged Lin-Manuel Miranda (alongside Opeataia Foa’i and Mark Mancina) for his first major post-“Hamilton” gig, and the only song that pops on a first listen is “You’re Welcome,” Maui’s smug self-congratulation anthem. (Moana’s big number, “How Far I’ll Go,” is pretty routine “I wish” material, but no doubt Radio Disney is already playing the heck out of it.) Drag queens should start working up routines to “Shiny,” a number sung by a bauble-loving crab voiced by Jemaine Clement.
The South Pacific setting gives directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who previously collaborated on “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”), and their co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams (“Big Hero 6”), plenty of great visual materials, from the deep blue sea to the verdant islands to some memorably bizarre pirate-coconuts to the region’s elaborate tattoos. (Maui’s skin art moves and responds, making it both a Greek chorus and a wisecracking sidekick.)
And much to its credit, the screenplay (credited to five writers, including Taiki Waititi of “Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows” and the upcoming “Thor: Ragnarok”) makes Moana an interesting, self-actualized character. She’s not waiting around for a prince, and there’s no question that her gender will stand in the way of inheriting the title of chief. Her wishes and dreams nonetheless never stray all that far from those of her forebears, although she’s as agile as Aladdin and as filled with wanderlust as Peter Pan.
“Moana” does what it does so well that you wish its makers had imbued it with some X factor that separates the classics from the merely beloved. If you don’t mind Disney’s business as usual dressed up with a little hibiscus, then you’ll enjoy this latest journey of self-discovery.