If Disney's gazillion-dollar-grossing Frozen was the perfect holiday animated feature of 2013, with its snowy Nordic landscape, and supporting cast that included a snowman and a reindeer, Disney's new cartoon feature, Moana, is the perfect holiday movie for the opposite reason — enveloped in the landscape and folklore of the Pacific Islands, it's a sunny, beachy, gorgeously animated antidote to winter.
Moana is directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker and their creative team, the brain trust behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog, among others. The movie's story and look are steeped in Polynesian mythology, and it features a principal voice cast of mostly Pacfic Islander descent, along with a songwriting team that includes Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame.
The result is a wonderful, girl-power tale of a young woman on a quest to find herself and fulfill her destiny.
|Moana: Chosen by the Sea|
Scripted by Jared Bush, from a story concocted by Clements, Musker, and their minions, Moana begins with an origin myth about the creation of life in the world, and a slumbering earth goddess in the shape of an island.
But a trickster demigod called Maui stole the sparkling green heart of the goddess, and now the seas are restless, and life in the islands is imperiled.
This tale is told by Gramma Tala (Rachel House) to an audience of rapt island children, and none are more thrilled than her own granddaughter, Moana.
In a brief, frisky montage, we see Moana as a toddler, child, and tween, repeatedly sneaking down to the beach to commune with the sea, only to be dragged back to the village by her father, the chieftan (Maori actor Temuera Morrison). The sea is dangerous, he keeps telling her, but life is beautiful in the village, where her destiny is to lead the people one day.
|Moana discovers forbidden boats: love the design on that hull|
But the sea herself disagrees. One day when little Moana protects a sea turtle hatchling from predator birds as it crawls into the sea, a wave rises up in a beautiful green spout and deposits a trail of conch shells leading into the ocean at the child's feet.
Her grandmother tells her the sea has chosen Moana to find Maui and return the heart to the sleeping island, far away across the ocean — even though her father forbids anyone from sailing their outrigger boats past the reef that surrounds their island.
|Gramma Tala communes with the Sea|
But by the time Moana is a young woman (now voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), a coconut blight, and a dwindling fish supply, put island life in jeopardy. The sea reveals the lost heart to Moana, and, at her grandmother's urging, she sets off past the reef, through stormy seas, to find Maui.
The relationship between girl and grandmother is very tender. When Moana is reluctant to leave her granny behind at the start of her quest, Gramma Tala tells her "There is nowhere you can go that I won't be with you."
Navigating by a constellation shaped like the Maui's fabled fish-hook, Moana finds the desolate salt island where the demigod has long been stranded for his crime. With a body full of tattoos, and plenty of attitude, Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson; turns out he's part Samoan), doesn't care about Moana's quest, but he covets her boat.
When the sea prevents him from throwing Moana overboard, Maui reluctantly adopts a big brother attitude toward her, and they set out to fix the mess he's made.
After a bizarrely funny encounter with a few boatloads of ferocious pirates made out of coconuts, they visit a scavenger crab (Jemaine Clement provides its sleepy hipster voice) to retrieve the magic fish-hook that allows Maui to shape-shift. (Although, when he wants to soar like a raptor, he's just as likely to find himself transformed into a bug, instead, or an airborne shark.)
A pet chicken provides comedy relief, and the movie spoofs the whole Disney Princess brand. When Moana bristles at that designation, Maui cracks, "If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you're a princess."
Moana's determination to become a Wayfinder echoes another great girl-power movie, Whale Rider. And, most cool are Maui's tattoos, which not only move around and tell their own animated stories, but act as Maui's conscience.
|Maui's animated tats: Every picture tells a story|
Bursting with color, music, beautiful seagoing vistas, and the mythology and folkways of the Pacific Islands, Moana is guaranteed to cure your winter blahs.