Disney films tend to follow a recipe that includes a hero’s journey (either figurative or literal), a sidekick, catchy songs, a villain and a lesson. The studio’s latest animated feature checks all those boxes, while still managing to enthrall. “Moana” may not be “The Little Mermaid” or “Aladdin,” but the film, set among the islands of Polynesia, boasts not only cultural authenticity but also a young heroine who is steadfast and proud, even as she struggles to find her way. Moana has the appeal of a princess and the heart of a warrior. In other words, she’s less a Sleeping Beauty than a South Pacific Mulan.
The story follows the title character (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), the 16-year-old daughter of a Polynesian chief who has always been drawn to the sea. When an environmental calamity threatens her island home, Moana, a born navigator, sets sail to save the people she will one day lead, embarking on a sea journey to retrieve an ancient artifact that has the power to create new islands and oceans. (A prologue explains that this mystical object, known as the Heart of Te Fiti, was stolen centuries ago by Maui, a demigod of the wind and sea.) Encouraged by her grandmother (Rachel House), and accompanied by a dumb-as-rocks rooster named Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), Moana sets out to track down the demigod (Dwayne Johnson) and restore the Heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place.
With me so far?
Despite a slightly complicated setup, most of the film, which concerns Moana overcoming obstacles, is fairly predictable. Maui — who has been stuck on an island for hundreds of years, and who is still arrogant despite having lost some of his powers — is one such obstacle. “So what can I say except you’re welcome,” he sings, “for the islands I pulled from the sea?”
That self-aggrandizing song features a catchy rap verse, courtesy of lyricist (and “Hamilton” creator) Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also sings lead on another soundtrack tune. All of the catchy music is appropriate for the island setting, due in large part to the contributions of Opetaia Foa’i, a Samoan musician and composer known for a style called South Pacific fusion. “How Far I’ll Go,” a song that was recently released by Alessia Cara, is delivered in the film by a crisp and lovely toned Cravalho. Don’t be surprised if you start hearing it on Radio Disney.
Though Maui does not trust the young Moana’s wayfinding skills — sometimes she doubts her own abilities — he reluctantly joins her, fighting off boats filled with creatures that look like coconuts, dodging flaming arrows and sparring with a giant crab (voiced by a hilarious Jemaine Clement, in a sparkling, five-minute cameo).
While the showboating Maui is clearly intended as comic relief — to a fault, at times — it’s Moana who holds your interest. Small details make her relatable, from her anguished looks to the way she tosses her hair into a messy bun during physical activity. (Hair is one of the film’s best animation achievements: Moana and Maui’s black, curly locks move and flow like real tresses.)
“Moana” faced an uphill battle before its release, with some commentators calling Maui’s bulky physique a racist stereotype, and a Halloween costume based on his character getting pulled, after accusations of cultural appropriation. The finished film, however, will settle any bad blood. Yes, Maui is portrayed as extremely strong and buff, but worries about his weight are an issue of animation, not character portrayal. In terms of racial insensitivity, Disney has made its most culturally sensitive film ever. Nearly every character — even some who don’t have names — has island ties. (Football player Troy Polamalu, of Samoan descent, voices Villager No. 1.) And such seemingly small touches as the characters’ tattoos — hand-tapped, as is the tradition in Polynesian culture — play a prominent role in the plot.
While the main themes of “Moana” are identity and self-discovery — familiar territory, to be sure — the film manages to enliven such well-traveled latitudes with a breeze as fresh as the islands.
PG. At area theaters. Contains peril, some scary images and material that may be upsetting to young viewers. 96 minutes.