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"MOANA"
(2016) (voices of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Computer-Animated Comedy-Musical: A teenager sets sail to find a disgraced demigod and return a previously stolen, sacred stone to put an end to the curse it's wreaking on her island.
PLOT:
Moana (voice of AULI'I CRAVALHO) is the teenage daughter of Chief Tui Waialiki (voice of TEMUERA MORRISON), the ruler of the idyllic island of Motunui somewhere in the South Pacific. Much like her grandmother, Gramma Tala (voice of RACHEL HOUSE), Moana has long been drawn to the ocean, but Tui forbids her, or anyone for that matter, of traveling past the protective reefs that encircle the island. Instead, he wants her to stay with him and her mother, Sina (voice of NICOLE SCHERZINGER), and eventually replace him as chief.

Unbeknownst to Moana, however, events from one-thousand-years-ago will impact her life in ways she couldn't imagine. And that involves a demigod known as Maui (voice of DWAYNE JOHNSON) who did everything in his power to provide for Moana's ancestors. But when he stole the heart of Te Fiti -- a carved stone with the ability to create life -- in hopes of giving it to humankind, things quickly went awry. Not only did he lose the stone and his magical fishhook that allowed him to shape-shift into any animal, but that theft sent a curse around the world.

And now it's reached the shores of Motunui, resulting in ruined crops and no fish to catch inside the reef. Learning from Gramma Tala about her people's past explorer heritage and that if the heart of Te Fiti is returned the curse will be lifted, Moana sets sail with only a scatterbrained chicken, Hei Hei, as her traveling companion. Once she finds Maui -- long-stranded as a castaway -- and convinces him to join her on her quest, the two set sail for their destination, all while dealing with various obstacles including a number of coconut pirates, a gargantuan crab known as Tamatoa (voice of JEMAINE CLEMENT), and Te K?, a monstrous lava creature.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Okay, I have to fess up. Right before I saw "Moana" -- Disney's latest animated "princess" movie that arrives in the form of a musical-comedy hybrid and features some catchy songs and gorgeous animation -- I just got back from a two-week vacation to Hawaii. It was glorious, the scenery on Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island was beautiful, the people were nice and I could easily see myself living there once that winning Powerball ticket finds its way into my hands.

Until then, I can live via memories along with hundreds of photos and videos of our trip, and by watching this terrific flick again. Mind you, it's not about the island of Hawaii per se, but rather a similarly looking if fictitious island somewhere in the South Pacific (presumably Polynesia or thereabouts) where our title character resides. In terms of plot -- this one penned by Jared Bush -- the film follows some of the typical Disney princess blueprint.

Young Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho and rendered with a more realistic appearance than cartoon princesses of the past -- especially in terms of waist and eye sizes) longs to get out into the world, but her overprotective father, Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison), won't let her or anyone else venture out beyond the island's protective reefs. Besides, the island is nothing short of paradise and the teen is being groomed to become chief following her dad. But like her grandma (Rachel House), Moana has always been drawn to the sea and the siren call, if you will, has never relented. And she eventually learns why as it's in her blood, for her people of long ago were sea explorers until some bad luck (actually a curse) came their way.

Spinning a new variation on an old Hawaiian legend of never taking lava rock from the island lest one experience some bad results, the scribe gives our plot some related back-story. It seems a demigod (who just so happens to go by the name of Maui) stole the "Heart of Te Fiti" -- a carved stone with the ability to create life -- one-thousand years ago only to taste a heaping' helpin' of John Lennon's instant karma. Not only did the back luck hit him (stranding the egomaniac on an island Tom Hanks style -- minus Wilson), but it also made the seas treacherous and just now has afflicted Moana's island. Crops are diseased and fishing nets are coming up empty.

Realizing it's her destiny to save the day by taking up the seafaring ways of her ancestors, Moana sets sail with only a scatterbrained chicken as her at-sea companion. Her goal is to find Maui (entertainingly voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), enlist his help to find the Heart of Te Fiti, and return it to its rightful place to end the curse. To no one's surprise, that's easier said than done, mainly because the self-centered demigod just wants to get off his tiny island and has no intention of helping the novice teen sailor.

But after some fun and moving songs, him being reacquainted with his magical hook (that allows him to shape-shift into various animals) and realizing the girl needs his help, he decides to give just that (helped along a bit by a sedative dart to the butt that renders him her prisoner of sorts for a bit). Not surprisingly, the two bond, but the writer and co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker thankfully don't go down the usual spirited princess ends up falling for the handsome prince bit. Instead, the characters are platonic friends with a shared mission, although it won't take a Hawaiian luau story for anyone to figure out there will be a brief falling out, followed by a reunion during the climactic finale.

Despite some of that predictable nature, all involved infuse the 113-some minute film with enough updates and variations on such material that it manages to come off as fairly fresh and certainly always engaging. The computer animation is nothing short of amazing to behold, particularly the rendering of the ocean and water (which are right up there with hair in terms of animation rendering difficulty), with what certainly appears to be a bit of homage to long-ago CGI that James Cameron used to depict a sentient bit of H20 in "The Abyss." The songs are also good, with a few co-penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Broadway's "Hamilton" fame), including the likely Oscar-nominated "We Know the Way" which could also hold true for Cravalho's very Broadway sounding "How Far I'll Go."

While I might be a bit biased toward liking the film due to my recent trip, I don't think anyone who hasn't been will enjoy it any less. But with all of its positive attributes (including yet another much-needed representation of a strong teen/young woman character), "Moana" might have you in the throes of wanderlust and possibly booking a trip to our fiftieth state to take in the scenery and laid-back Hawaiian vibe. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 16, 2016 / Posted November 23, 2016


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