Like so many children at the start of the best fairy tales and fables — and this new Disney cartoon belongs among them — Moana (pronounced mo-WAH-nah) would appear to have it all. She lives on a Pacific island where the carefully tended ecosystem produces the best farm-to-table food imaginable — and where, someday, she’ll inherit the power to rule from her father, the chief. In short, it’s paradise.
Until it’s not: The fruit starts to rot. The fish swim off beyond the reef and into the dangerous ocean that the chief forbids his people from sailing. Moana’s grandmother, the human equivalent of that mystical old chanting tree in Pocahontas, knows the cause of this curse: It all goes back to Maui (PEOPLE Sexiest Man Alive 2016 Dwayne Johnson), demigod of wind and sea, and his betrayal of Te Fiti, who outranks him as a full-fledged nature goddess.
Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), propelled by a sense of destiny, disobeys her father and sets sail to find Maui and right the world: A girl conquering the vast blue ocean all on her own isn’t going to worry about glass ceilings.
What Moana discovers out there on the water is a lovely adventure, full of imaginative characters of vivid dramatic scale and sweep — but who, for all that, are eccentric, foolish and slightly peculiar in a way that makes them charming company: 1) a fleet of marauding pirates who would be as terrifying as the road warriors of Mad Max: Fury Road if they didn’t happen to also be coconuts; 2) a giant crab, Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), who might also be terrifying if he didn’t glow with phosphorous highlights — like a club kid hovering under infrared lights at a disco — while singing a number that sounds like one of the more decadent offshoots of late British New Wave, maybe even David Bowie.
And then, of course, there’s Maui. For all his bragging, cunning and magical skills, he seems to be aware that, as demigods go, he’s really a few notches down the scale — possibly only a quasi. (His tattoos, which communicate with him like pantomiming shadow puppets, have a way of cutting him down to size.)
It’s harder to know what to make of Heihei, the mindless rooster who accompanies Moana, except that there’s no reason for her not to throw him into a pot with some vegetables and stock once she gets back home. Her family will be hungry, and grateful.
Moana herself, by the way, is as lifelike a human figure as I’ve ever seen in a cartoon, digital or otherwise.
The highly hummable score, by a team that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), includes a big song for Moana, “How Far I’ll Go,” that should finally allow you to let go of Frozen’s “Let It Go.”
(Nov. 23, PG)