Disney’s ‘Moana’ is classic princess story for new century

"Moana" | Walt Disney Grade: A
Walt Disney/Courtesy
"Moana" | Walt Disney
Grade: A

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Coming off the heels of mega-hits “Frozen” and “Zootopia,” Disney’s 2010s Renaissance shows no signs of stopping. Its latest effort, “Moana,” easily holds its own beside recent successes and also finds a comfortable place among the Disney classics of the ‘90s, introducing a likable, confident, kickass Polynesian princess to its royal pantheon — only this time with far greater sensitivity to the culture it mines for inspiration.

In many ways, “Moana” feels like it was made to please the internet, bringing together “Hamilton” creator and positive tweeter Lin-Manuel Miranda, living meme Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is unfairly the handsomest man in the world (and a great singer), and a talented team of Polynesian actors and artists. “Moana” avoids whitewashing by doing its homework — steps that should be a given but are in fact an encouraging improvement, meriting praise in a Hollywood landscape that still casts Tilda Swinton, a woman so white she literally played a snow queen, as a Tibetan monk.

Disney has taken particular care to emphasize the study and dialogue that went into bringing Polynesian culture to gorgeous CGI life. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin”) took several research trips to Oceania and established a group of advisers called the Oceanic Story Trust. Gratifyingly, their findings were not used to embellish a story with superficial flecks of cultural accuracy but, rather, the stories of Oceania are woven into the fabric of “Moana’s” story — such as Polynesian wayfinding.

The joy of “Moana” lies in the details because the story is a familiar one. On the island of Motunui, Chief Tui Waialiki (voiced by Temuera Morrison and sung by Christopher Jackson of “Hamilton”) must constantly remind his restless daughter Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) that nobody sails beyond the reef. Moana wants more than her “provincial life” and finds herself drawn to the ocean; the ocean reciprocates the feeling, protecting and guiding Moana on her adventure. When the livelihood of her island is threatened by a creeping rot that has blackened the coconuts and driven the fish from the shores, Moana sets off to the high seas on a wayfinding canoe.

To restore her lush home to its former abundance, Moana must track down the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and enlist his help in returning a magical stone to its rightful place.

Along the way, Moana and Maui, accompanied by a dangerously stupid chicken Heihei  — unfortunately, Moana’s ridiculously adorable pet pig Pua stays home — encounter a Mad Max-esque flotilla of of tiny, vicious coconut-clad warriors called Kakamora and dive into the underwater realm of monsters. That undersea kingdom is a Boschian rave hellscape where they encounter a giant, treasure-hoarding crab played by Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”) who sings the least effective song of “Moana,” “Shiny,” a glam rock tune that feels unfinished and out of place.

Luckily, the rest of the music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina is excellent, a collection of earworms you’ll find yourself humming in the shower against your will. “Where You Are” establishes Moana’s life on Motunui and serves as a good excuse to show off what Clements and Musker learned on their travels about village custom in a beautiful sequence. Moana gets her Disney “I want” number with “How Far I’ll Go,” a fairly standard song that gets better with every reprise. Then, Maui gets his introduction with the jubilant “You’re Welcome.”

“Moana” never feels dutiful, but it does the necessary work of creating a princess and cultural representation suited to today. Moana is a capable wayfinding apprenticeapprentice of wayfinding to Maui, convincing the unwilling demigod to teach her the art of ocean navigation so she can follow in her ancestors’ footsteps. Her confidence in herself is nearly unshakeable and incredibly powerful. In a welcome detail, she puts her hair up in a bun before sailing into climactic battle with a lava monster, which is a nice rebuttal to the widespread cinematic conviction that women like to fight with their hair flowing dramatically around them.

Hopefully, Moana is not a gesture of appeasement but a sign of princesses to come —  princesses unimpressed by demigods, undefined by romance, proportioned like actual people and not Western. “Moana” proves there is a treasure trove of fascinating stories to explore beyond Hollywood’s typical lily-white, been-there-done-that offerings. For the biggest studio in the world, this is a step in the right direction, a sign that Disney is ready to go the distance and give whole new worlds their due.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.