“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Thus does a Polynesian demigod chastise the daughter of a Pacific island chieftain who has maintained that she is nothing of the kind.
Of course, for all intents and purposes, he is right and she is wrong. “Chieftain’s daughter” is merely “princess” by another name. But with this cunning wink, Disney’s Moana inoculates itself against the charge that it is yet another of the studio’s unwoke princess movies.
Better still are the substantive upgrades: The 16-year-old titular heroine is proportioned like an actual adolescent female, rather than a saucer-eyed, wasp-waisted Barbie. And you can scan the ocean horizon in every direction without spotting anything that remotely resembles a love interest.
Such political advances, however, are secondary to the sheer virtuosity of Moana. The movie is an absolute delight, a lush, exuberant quest fable full of big musical numbers and featuring perhaps the most stunning visuals of any Disney film to date.
As the story opens, the chieftain’s daughter, Moana (played by young Hawaiian actress Auli‘i Cravalho), is perpetually vexed that her father (Temuera Morrison) will not allow her to venture beyond the reef encircling their island home of Motunui. But the island and the ocean around it are slowly dying, because long ago a capricious demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole—and subsequently lost—the precious-stone “heart” of the fertile goddess Te Fiti. When the sea itself entrusts that heart to young Moana, she knows that she must set sail beyond the reef, find Maui, and with his help restore Te Fiti’s heart.