'Moana' Review: Disney's Animated Polynesian Musical Is a Feminist Delight

Story of Pacific Islander girl on a quest benefits from Dwayne Johnson's comic timing and a Lin-Manuel Miranda soundtrack

'Moana' is more than just Dwayne Johnson and a Lin-Manuel Miranda soundtrack – Peter Travers on why Disney's animated musical is a feminist triumph. Credit: Disney

A Polynesian girl embarks on a rite of passage in Moana, a scrappy sweetheart of an animated joyride, rising on the tide of a terrific score by genius Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, iconic Disney composer-arranger Mark Mancina, and the rhythmic chants of Opetaia Foa'i, the lead singer of the South Pacific fusion band Te Vaka. Sound plays as crucial a role as visuals in replicating an authentic culture to drive the storytelling. Moana, sassily voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, is feeling restless on her island of Motunui. Her quest is to head out to sea and return a heart-shaped jewel stolen from the goddess Te Fiti by the demigod Maui. Since Te Kā, a hulking beast, is hellbent on scaring Moana off her goal, there is trouble ahead. But since Maui is voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, there will be laughs along the way. Especially when he toys with the magic fish hook that can make him a formidable shapeshifter.

Got that? Doesn't matter. The point here is Moana's growing independence, her lack of a love interest and the quietly revolutionary way her body differs from the skinny-Barbie image of most Disney princesses The snag is that her father has issued a decree forbidding all islanders to venture past the reef that surrounds Motunui. That stay-at-home policy comes through in the song "Where We Are," while Moana, born to disobey, issues a challenge in the ballad "How Far I'll Go."

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements dawdle a bit when Moana is at sea. But there are clever distractions, such as a tune from a monster crab, comically voiced by Jemaine Clement. And, of course, Heihei, Moana's nutty rooster companion on her heroic journey. The young woman insists she's not a princess. Maui disagrees. "If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess." He's got a point. But Moana has a better one. She's a girl on a mission. And heaven help the man, monster, or demigod who tries to stop her.