“Moana,” the latest animated adventure from Disney, is a visual paradise. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker have created a stunning world to serve as a backdrop for their story of a young girl who must defy her family in order to save her island.
The problem is the story is nowhere near as interesting as the animation. It’s slowly paced and even the multiple attempts to explain the Polynesian tales that serves as the fabric of the story never make the plot as clear as the water surrounding this world.
Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is in line to become the queen of her tropical island. She’s more interested in life beyond the reef, but Moana is convinced she must learn to live in and rule the world where she lives.
That changes when plant life begins to die and the fish population disappears. Moana learns from her sage Gramma Tala (Rachel House) that a jewel stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) must be returned to its rightful spot to stop the ebbing of life out to sea.
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An extended opening tries to explain the folklore and is filled with forgettable tunes (despite being the work of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer Mark Mancina and New Zealand musician Opetaia Foa’i) . There’s not a single musical number on the level of a “Let It Go” from “Frozen” that you will sing as you leave the theater.
The weakest musical moment is Johnson’s singing performance with “You’re Welcome.” His voice isn’t good enough to be serious and not bad enough to add comedy. It would have been a good place to have substituted a more accomplished singer for the number.
That’s not the case with Cravalho, who shows with her first acting job she’s perfect both delivering lines as the spunky Moana or when singing what will probably be an Oscar-nominated tune in “How Far I’ll Go.” The other voice talents are just general fodder that add little to the film.
It’s the story that keeps getting in the way of making this a great movie. A second attempt to explain the story comes through the tattoos on Maui’s body that spring to life to explain why the jewel could be both good and bad for mankind. The tattoos not only fail to clarify the story, but they come across like the Grecian Urn segments from the animated “Hercules” that Clements and Musker also directed.
“Moana” suffers from the same woes as “Hercules.” That film delved into Greek mythology, which is relatively unknown except for what people saw on “Xena: Warrior Princess.” At least there’s more recognition of the Greek myths than tales from Polynesia. It should inspire an interest in learning more about the culture. But if you wait until after the movie, it’ll be too late.
The film falters with supporting players, too, such as a cockeyed rooster that quickly becomes more annoying than endearing. There’s also a weird ’60s blacklight sequence with a hermit crab that doesn’t visually fit the film.
Disney should be applauded for adding more diversity to their Princess court. Those good intentions can only mask a few errors and can’t bandage the clunky script. Stories for animated tales should be simple enough for youngsters to understand.
The connection of Moana to the sea draws comparisons to Clements and Mesker’s best work for Disney in “The Little Mermaid.” This is a pale bookend to that project because of a weak story, so-so songs and slow pacing. But at least it has a look and design that is the major attraction.
Note: The short film, “Inner Workings,” that accompanies the film is worth the price of admission. Also, the ending of “Moana” is very intense and could scare young children.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Chris Jackson, Alan Tudyk, Rachel House
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Rating: PG (peril, scary images)
Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 23