Disney’s ‘Moana’ is a Sweet and Soulful Charmer

Dwayne Johnson's voice work and Lin-Manuel Miranda's songs give the formulaic musical an inspired lift.

Frankly, it’s a little surprising it took this long for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to voice a Disney movie, because he’s already (in the best possibly way) a cartoon character. He’s comically over-muscular, disproportionate in his own way as Popeye; he has the inoffensive handsomeness of a Disney prince and the pleasing baritone speaking (and, turns out, singing) voice of Gaston; he’s rather impossibly funny and charming. Not long after his discovery by the heroine of Disney’s Moana, his animated avatar raises one of his eyebrows in an arch so perfectly overstated it could only exist in a cartoon – or on the Rock’s own face. If it were merely a vehicle for this delightful transition, Moana would be worth seeing; it is even better than that, a delightful and often inspiring musical/comedy/adventure.

The title character (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of a Polynesian tribe chief, currently being groomed to take over those duties herself. But in an emotional dilemma not uncommon the Disney oeuvre, she is both obligated to stay and desperate to leave, longing to explore the seas surrounding their island, and seemingly pulled into them by the ocean itself. (In a turn that will surprise anyone who’s never seen a Disney picture before, she expresses this conundrum in a show-stopping ballad of self-determination.) She finally uncovers the story behind her peoples’ isolationism, an ancient curse on the land prompted by the actions of the demigod Maui (Johnson), so she sets out to find him and set things straight.

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She’s accompanied on her journey by a cross-eyed chicken, who supplies plenty of good sight gags, but not much help on the high seas (there’s real terror and excitement in these scenes of ocean peril, which are rendered with some of the film’s most impressive animation). When she finally discovers Maui on a remote island, he’s quite something – a preening, self-satisfied mountain of a man, with telltale tattoos on his left and right breast that act as his conscience and provide running commentary. And in “You’re Welcome,” he gets the best introductory song this side of Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me,” which is a pretty pronounced influence (one of the directors is Ron Clements, who also co-directed that film, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog, and more).

The songs are the primary point of entry and interest for the older moviegoers who will flock to Moana this weekend, as they’re co-penned by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. “You’re Welcome” is the most obviously Miranda-ish cut (at least on the surface, thanks to its breathless pace and spoken-word break), though Jemaine Clement’s Bowie-esque “Shiny” is also a highlight – as is his character’s closing line, shouted to the escaping Moana and Maui: “Hey! Hey! Did you like the song?!”

The script by Jared Bush (who also penned Zootopia, so at least somebody’s having a good 2016) is full of little witticisms like that, self-aware without falling into the trap of winking smugness or empty pop-culture references. But it’s the pathos that resonates, the timeless themes of questioning and understanding one’s own purpose – and grasping history to understand the future, an idea captured by a surprisingly moving scene that finds Moana singing to her grandmother’s ghost. Moana has its dead spots; it has a bit of trouble getting going, and the fire-and-darkness climax is fairly uninspired. But there’s a heart beating in this sweet and cheerful film, and the unlikely friendship between its main characters transcends formula to give the picture its soul. It’s a treat, for family audiences and musical theater geeks alike.

Moana is out today.