Between The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, directors Ron Clements and John Musker are responsible for helming some of Disney’s most iconic animated films. With their latest effort, they turn to the South Pacific, and not only does Moana feel like a worthy successor to Disney’s most beloved animated classics, but it pushes the genre into 2016, introducing a smart, diverse, and convincing heroine who struggles against lava monsters and self-doubt.
Teenage newcomer Auli’i Cravalho voices Moana, the daughter of a South Pacific chieftain on an idyllic island. While her father has forbidden her from venturing beyond their home, Moana finds herself irresistibly drawn to the ocean, daydreaming about what she might find beyond the barrier reef. But when her village is threatened by a mysterious darkness, Moana’s wizened grandmother fills her in on her people’s rich heritage of sailing and wayfinding, and Moana sets out on an oceanic quest to save her home.
To do so, she has to locate a powerful demigod named Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), a swaggering braggart who can shapeshift with the help of his magical fish hook. Together, the pair take to the sea, navigating an assortment of maritime obstacles on their journey to rescue Moana’s village. (Jemaine Clement has a particularly good time as a villainous, narcissistic hermit crab named Tamatoa, who hoards all things shiny. Tamatoa falls a little flat next to other iconic Disney villains like Jafar, Ursula, and Hades, but he still delivers one of the most dazzling visual sequences in the entire film.)
Although the film has a few gorgeous, traditionally animated scenes (like close-ups of Maui’s magical tattoos), most of Moana is computer-generated, making it Clements and Musker’s first CGI film. Still, the animation is stunning, whether it’s showcasing lush landscapes or a madcap coconut pirate action sequence that feels like Mad Max: Fury Road on the high seas. The film also treats the ocean with particular care, and it gorgeously captures just how mercurial the sea can be, from playfully lapping at toddler Moana’s feet to pummeling a boat against a reef.
As far as the music goes, there isn’t necessarily an instant, “Let It Go”-style earworm, but Moana balances traditional Polynesian rhythms with musical theater ballads to spectacular effect. (Hamilton star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda penned the music with composer Mark Mancina and New Zealand musician Opetaia Foa’i.) Johnson’s standout track is the buoyant, bragging “You’re Welcome,” while Cravalho shows off her pipes with “How Far I’ll Go,” delivering the kind of classic Disney “I Want” song that brings to mind The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” and Hercules’ “Go The Distance.”
Moana has a lot of the hallmarks of your classic Disney adventure — the goofy animal sidekicks, the feel-good messages — but its heroine is something new, a smart and fiery deviation from your standard European lovestruck princesses. (Thankfully, Moana doesn’t have a love interest.) The result is a pitch-perfect addition to the animated Disney canon. A-