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Disney’s Moana tells an emotional, funny story worthy of its luminous heroine

Disney’s new don’t-call-her-a-princess is the hero we need right now.

Moana and Maui on Moana’s boat
Moana and Maui on Moana’s boat
Walt Disney Studios
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Whether or not Moana (pronounced Moe-AH-na) is the movie we need right now I can't say definitively, but I think it was the movie I needed. And I suspect I won’t be alone in that feeling.



A tale of a courageous young woman who learns to lead from her ancestors and takes on a lava monster, Moana has a lot things going for it. Its sunny island setting lends itself to magical realism to great effect, similar to this year's outstanding Kubo and the Two Strings. The film’s imagination runs rampant, and the results are funny and unpredictable. It has a great heroine. It calls for young people to embrace their family and community while also being brave and authentic. And the songs are mostly written by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, and whew are they catchy.

All these factors taken together and topped off with a great voice cast means Moana punches way above the weight class typically assigned to children’s movies with a fairly boilerplate plot about figuring out who you truly are. It's delightful.

Moana draws on legends to tell a story of bravery

Moana is set on Motunui, a Polynesian island far enough away from any mainland that its time period isn't clear. But modernity hasn't touched the island, which is self-sufficient from its fishing and coconut farming. Everyone seems content.

Moana and her grandmother
Moana and her grandmother.
Walt Disney Pictures

Except Moana, voiced by newcomer (and Oahu native) Auli'i Cravalho. Moana's father is the chief, Tui (Temuera Morrison), and someday, he tells her often, she will be chief. Technically, then, Moana is another Disney princess, though the film is self-aware enough to make a crack about it when Moana protests that she's actually the daughter of a chief. ("If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess").

Moana's people tell the story of their ancestors, who came to Motunui and stayed because it is protected by a reef, which they must never cross. But why would they cross it? They've got everything they need right there on Motunui, and an all-village song-and-dance number called "Where We Are" to prove it.

Yet Moana has heard the ocean calling to her since she was a tiny child (Moana means ocean), and though she loves her home and family, she also longs to see what's beyond the reef, singing her conflict in "How Far I'll Go." Her grandmother, a bit of a gadfly, gently nudges her teenage granddaughter toward a fuller discovery of her people's heritage: They were once voyagers, people who sailed the ocean.

Meanwhile, Moana discovers that her island is in trouble. The coconuts aren't growing well. The fish supply is drying up in the reef. The way to restore prosperity to the island, Moana knows from her grandmother's stories, is to return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, which was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). And so Moana, heart in hand, sets sail for the island where Maui is marooned — with her scrappy chicken sidekick in tow — to force him to return the heart to Te Fiti.

The demigod Maui and his fishhook
The demigod Maui and his fishhook.
Walt Disney Pictures

The movie’s legends are based on real myths. But once Moana gets on the high seas, the film takes on the standard episodic nature of similar quest movies, with scary beasts and catchy dance numbers (most notably, one from a giant crab who is very fond of glittery things, voiced by Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement). Along the way, Moana learns how to navigate from the stars, that courage and valor aren't just for demigods, and that it's important to know who you are and know where you came from if you want to lead well.

Moana looks great, and you’ll leave humming

The magic in Moana comes from its striking visual imagination, something that's always been a feature of Disney animated films but is especially fun here. In some cases, it actually helps propel the story and get around some narrative trickiness. For instance, telling all of Maui's backstory could grow ponderous; luckily, Maui's enormous body is covered with tattoos that tell his history, and a tiny Maui-shaped tattoo is animated, jumping around his body and serving as a sort of conscience whenever the demigod gets too cocky.

Maui’s stylized moving tattoo is a nice two-dimensional contrast to Moana’s 3D computer animation, which doesn't add much in this film but is probably inescapable by now at your local multiplex. And it's not the only time Moana switches to 2D: An early segment tells the legend of Te Fiti and Maui using a stylized mixed-animation technique that’s been around for a while, and was effectively used at length in a few films this year, including Kubo and the Two Strings and The Little Prince. The mix of styles in these films suggest that filmmakers are growing more thoughtful about how animation doesn't just depict a story in a cool way, but actually helps shape the way we perceive it, and lets them pay homage to art from other cultures and time periods.

Moana also manages to make surprisingly effective use of inanimate objects: The ocean itself is a character in Moana, with a personality and (non-verbal) jokes of its own. And the film's funniest bit may be when Moana and Maui are attacked by three huge pirate ships run by a roving band of murderous … coconuts? (I hope the coconuts become a recurring thing.)

Moana and Maui exult over his new fishhook
Moana and Maui exult over his new fishhook.
Walt Disney Pictures

A lot of the early buzz regarding Moana — particularly once Miranda’s involvement was announced — centered on whether it would be a worthy musical successor to Disney’s massively successful Frozen. Whether or not the Moana soundtrack supplants "Let it Go" in the minivans of parents everywhere may depend more on the parents' need to switch than anything else: Moana's soundtrack is exuberant and fun, but a little more lyrically complicated, and thus potentially less earwormy.

Moana's big song, "How Far I'll Go," as well as "I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)" and "We Know the Way," are fairly standard show tunes inflected with a strong Polynesian influence, whereas both the crab's song "Shiny" and Maui's introductory number "You're Welcome" are sly, with a lot of fast-paced internal rhyming. But regardless of whether they take a spot on permanent rotation, they're definitely fun.

Moana is hitting theaters not just at Thanksgiving, but at a moment when a lot of weary people are looking for a little escape. In times marked by cowardice and ugliness, a luminous movie about a brave girl who taps into the past to lead in the future — accented with catchy tunes and a demigod — may indeed be a sunny balm for weary souls.

Moana opens in theaters on November 23.

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