"It’s a charmer, and one of the few Disney movies in recent memory that’s easy to get lost in."

Disney scores again with likable and tune filled Moana.

(120416) In a year where Walt Disney Animation already launched one of its top grossing movies of all time (last spring’s “Zootopia”), “Moana” is the icing on the corporate cake. Settling back into a musical groove that hasn’t been explored since 2013’s “Frozen,” the company tries to restore a little of their old big screen magic with this tale of high adventure in the South Pacific. There are so many treats to unwrap in “Moana,” it feels like a packed effort, with “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” helmers Ron Clements and John Musker creating a wonderful bigness to the picture, while also tending to its heart. Traditional dramatic arcs remain to secure audience comfort, but it feels like a fresh, alive film, giving the studio another lasting creative success.

Deep in the South Seas, a Maori island community is overseen by Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), who’s grooming his daughter, Moana (Auli’l Cravalho), for eventual leadership, impressing on her the need to remain in place and not explore the world waiting for her beyond the horizon. Restless but respectful, Moana tries to fulfill her destiny, but resources are running out on the island, hit by a curse triggered long ago by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who stole a special mystical stone from an island goddess. With her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), urging her to reach out into the unknown like her ancestors, Moana hits the high seas with pet chicken Hei Hei, out to locate Maui and return the stone to its rightful owner. A shape-shifting demigod who derives his magic from a massive fish hook, Maui at first wants nothing to do with Moana, but soon understands the urgency of the perilous mission.

There’s immediate beauty to “Moana,” which visits a blue and green realm of island culture, spending initial moments setting up the concept of the missing stone, which Maui absconds with, losing the emerald rock along the way due to interference from a lava monster out to conquer the seas. Admittedly, there’s a lot of heavy exposition at the start of the film, setting up a special conflict that doesn’t involve a direct villain, putting focus on mythical origins and, eventually, Moana and her people. Once settled into the tribal routine, “Moana” delivers sumptuous visuals of community interaction, where families thrive on coconut harvesting and fishing, introducing the first of many songs co-written by “Hamilton” sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s sharp character design and a blinding use of color, with Musker and Clements overseeing the creation of absolute paradise in Moana’s home, her relationship to the ocean (which becomes a living thing to assist her), and a rich sense of mystery as the teen girl, urged on by Tala, begins to dig deeper into her past to support her future.

Themes of empowerment and sequences of bravery are common throughout “Moana,” which keeps up Disney screenwriting traditions, delivering a wonderful hero into the titular princess, who’s independent and a dreamer, but also vulnerable, in need of Maui’s help to navigate the seas. She’s a spunky creation, paired with the world’s dumbest chicken (the movie gets plenty of mileage out of Hei Hei’s comedic uselessness), and the feature keeps her mission one from the heart, aching to see a world she’s been forbidden to investigate, setting up an odyssey that involves a problematic education in the ways of sailing and navigation, and the securing of Maui’s services, with the demigod currently without his magical fish hook. “Moana” follows the two around the ocean as they learn to trust each other. Maui dismisses Moana at first, but soon recognizes her spirit, with his conscience flowing through his living tattoos -- the dancing ink often siding with the teenager. Maui is an egomaniac and selfish, but he quickly comes around, especially when Moana proves her worth during a skirmish with tiny, coconut-wearing pirates and a confrontation with Tamatoa (a scene-stealing Jemaine Clement), a giant bedazzled crustacean living in a monster realm.

“Moana” comes up short in a few areas, including bellylaughs, finding Maui better with sight gags than one-liners, despite Johnson’s expectedly enthusiastic performance. However, there’s so much feeling to the feature, including exceptional voice work from newcomer Cravalho, who brings such a strong sense of personality and courage to her character. It’s easy to forgive a little deficiency in the humor department when the lead performance is this charismatic. “Moana” is pure eye candy, but there’s a journey here that holds attention, offering cultural flair, lively characterizations, and a charming way with myth and family. It’s a charmer, and one of the few Disney movies in recent memory that’s easy to get lost in.

The star of "Moana" is, naturally, its title heroine, and credit Disney for imagining an independent "princess" who has no love interest and never once lets a man (dashing or otherwise) define her identity or future. As Moana moves closer to her destination, themes of courage, teamwork, and the lasting imprint of one's legacy rise valiantly in significance. Through it all, she stands up for what she believes in, even if she must go against the wishes of protective loved ones in order to succeed. It's a lesson everyone could stand to learn as they grow up. There is nothing lacking in Moana's universal, progressive appeal. She is a winning force, confidently standing alongside Ariel, Pocahontas and Mulan.

Directed by:  Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker , Chris Williams
Written by: Screenplay by Jared Bush, from a story by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell
Starring the Voices of:   Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House
Released: 112316
Length: 103 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements

MOANA ©  2016 Walt Disney Pictures

Review © 2016 Alternate Reality, Inc.