Maybe it was the agitated, election-induced state of mind I was in when I saw it, but Disney’s Moana feels like a movie about how easy it can be to give up, and how important it is not to. It’s funny, joyful, and sweet, and yet down below, running beneath everything, is a sad counter-narrative about how the world always throws obstacles in your way, and how you could just turn your back and retreat. Perseverance in the face of defeat is a theme that runs throughout most children’s films, and popular cinema in general; writing gurus have codified the “all is lost” moment that comes in the third act of so many films, just before the hero's triumph, into modern screenplay structure. And yet I’ve never seen it worked so thoroughly in a Disney animated movie as it is here. But for all that, this also plays like the lightest Disney animated film in quite some time.
That paradox is rooted in Moana's central relationship, between the wide-eyed, adventurous Polynesian princess of the title (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) and the hilariously preening, goofball demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson). The two find each other on the high seas after the girl flees her island village on a special quest. She wants to return a jewel-like “heart” that was stolen from the goddess Te Fiti by the demi-god Maui many years ago. The theft, we are told, plunged the world into darkness — it's why the oceans are now so often treacherous. There is, believe it or not, some historical basis for this set-up: About 2,000 years ago, navigation in the South Pacific evidently came to a mysterious halt, and didn’t pick up again for something like a thousand years.
Moana’s people are terrified of venturing beyond a nearby reef; they’re content to live in fear, grateful for what little they have. Her village chief father (voiced by Temuera Morrison, the electrifying Maori star of Once Were Warriors who later played Jango Fett in the Star Wars prequels) is particularly hard on his dreamer daughter, in part because he himself tried to venture forth many moons ago and failed. “Sometimes, who we wish we could be, and what we wish we could do, is just not meant to be,” our heroine is told. Even as the fish start to dry up and their plants start to die, nobody seems willing to try and find a way out; the people refuse to dream bigger. It’s like Interstellar with coconuts.
Luckily, Moana has special powers: The seas bend to her will. Plumes of water reach out and play with her hair. The waves occasionally carry her like they're a liquid throne. That gives her the courage to flee her village in an effort to find Maui and return to Te Fiti her heart. But when she does locate the demi-god, he’s a grave disappointment, a musclebound narcissist who has lost all his special powers. Without his magic fish hook, which allows him to shape-shift into different animals, he is virtually useless. Scratch the surface of his confidence and you find a broken man — rejected by humanity, hated by the gods, living in resentment. That he gives up so easily is often played by the film for laughs, but it’s hard not to be moved by it, too; his self-loathing humanizes him. Plus, he has a literal backstory: Animated tattoos magically appear on his back after important events, telling the tale of his life. He’s a marvelous creation, and the Rock voices him with an expert mix of bluster and pathos.
Moana is an episodic quest tale, but it’s also a buddy movie, as the demi-god and the princess bicker and fight and come to understand one another. Much will probably be made of the fact that the film has no love story (not even a fake one, like in Frozen) and that we finally have a hero “princess” who isn’t impossibly whisper-thin, but perhaps more notable is the fact that you don’t really notice these things as you watch. The episodes themselves are lively and inventive — from the army of tiny, adorably vicious coconut humanoids that our heroes battle, to Jemaine Clement’s giant, singing crab monster covered in glitter and gold whom they must both flatter and fight. It's more fleet of foot than otherwise very good recent Disney efforts — whether the family melodrama of Frozen, or the woke noir of Zootopia, or the grief-drenched sci-fi of Big Hero 6. And that lightness of spirit, oddly enough, helps temper the undercurrent of surrender, as our heroes give up, screw up, get back up and fail again.
Meanwhile, the songs, by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda, are catchy and draw upon diverse styles and traditions, ranging from folky, to Brit-poppy, to hear-me-roar style ballads. Will there be a “Let It Go” style phenomenon in the bunch? Don’t ask me; I’m the idiot who thought Frozen sounded too Broadway-ready. Moana’s songs, for all their eclecticism, feel more organic to the story and more in keeping with the movie’s playful patchwork of tones.
Starring Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, and Temuera Morrison. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Written by Taika Waititi, Ron Clements and John Musker. Rated PG. 113 minutes. In theaters everywhere November 23.