Disney has a good thing going for itself with the whole “Disney Princess” thing and its marketing to small girls. Whether or not aspiring to be a princess is a good thing, the newest such princess, the title character from the new movie Moana, is not the type to sit around and let someone else rescue her.
That’s a good thing.
Moana opens with the title character as a very small girl, the only member of her peer group who isn’t petrified by the story of how the shapeshifting demigod Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti from the powerful goddess/island of the same name. The storyteller, Moana’s grandmother Tala, insists that someday Maui will return the heart. Moana then wanders off to the beach where the ocean itself seems to be giving her a mission.
As time passes, Moana grows up and her father expects her to become chieftain someday. The island they live on has a single rule: never go beyond the reef. Then, when everything seems to start getting sick and dying, Moana figures it may be time for someone, namely her, to find Maui and force him to fix the mistakes he’s made.
The movie’s plot isn’t exactly the most complex ever, and even Disney at its best with the CG animation doesn’t quite reach the emotional maturity of a good Pixar film. That’s OK. This movie is gorgeous to look at, with some fantastic songs (written in part by Lin Manuel-Miranda), and some good character beats. Newcomer Auli’i Carvalho registers a strong presence as the voice of Moana, and Dwayne Johnson brings all the proper cocky swagger to Maui, a would-be Prometheus who made it a habit of stealing from the gods to give to mortals before he lost his enchanted fishhook, source of much of his power.
Don’t let the ad campaign fool you, though. For all of Maui’s bravado and superpowers, he isn’t the real hero here. That role clearly belongs to Moana, a character named for a Hawaiian royal family and the Polynesian word for “ocean”. Of course, the trailers and whatnot might lead you to believe Moana’s pet pig plays a large role as a third member of the rescue group. He doesn’t. That role belongs to Heihei, a particularly stupid chicken that somehow managed to stowaway on Moana’s boat. Besides, it wouldn’t be a Disney animated movie these days without a role voiced by Alan Tudyk.
My father told me years ago that the best way to see how entertained kids are by a movie is to see how many times they need to go to the bathroom. I had my two nephews with me, ages 9 and 6, and they never asked to hit the toilet once the entire time. I’d say that’s a good sign. Nine out of ten spectral manta rays.