Moana is the daughter of a chief and will someday inherit her father’s position, but she’s furious when Maui, a tattooed, muscle-bound demigod, calls her a princess. Moana (MWAH-nah) is not only part of a dynastic line but also a girl off on an adventure in the company of a cute animal sidekick (a dimwitted chicken named Heihei). So not just any princess, in other words: a Disney princess. She may be on a quest to save her island and restore ecological balance to the planet, but Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is also upholding a brand.
It is, as these things go, a pretty good brand. The Disney princess tradition has held onto its charm as it has changed with the times, widening its cultural frame of reference and allowing its heroines to travel down paths other than the one leading straight to matrimony. Moana, bantering with Maui (Dwayne Johnson) like a rival sibling and borne on her journey by the spirits of the ocean and her grandmother (Rachel House), has no need of a prince.
In the Disney kingdom, the in-house influence of Pixar has reinvigorated the animation (though some of us may still pine for the classic, painterly Disney visual aesthetic), and the rejuvenation of American musical theater has provided a fresh pool of songwriting talent. “Moana,” directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams from a screenplay by Jared Bush, includes a few infectious numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a heart-tugging orchestral pop score by the Disney stalwart Mark Mancina. Buoyant songs by the Polynesian singer and composer Opetaia Foa’i (performed with his band Te Vaka) anchor the film’s cheery globalism in a specific South Pacific milieu.
The plot is similarly syncretic, a mélange of updated folklore, contemporary eco-spiritualism and tried-and-true Disney-Pixar formula. Heihei, who beats out an adorable pig for the job of cute animal sidekick on the voyage itself, is a lot like Becky, the addled loon in “Finding Dory.” And the first part of the story, in which Moana’s anxious, protective father tries to keep his daughter from venturing beyond the reef that encircles their island, is a ringing echo of “Finding Nemo.”
Once an ecological catastrophe (and her grandmother’s example) persuade Moana to defy her dad, she must overcome her own doubts (and Maui’s skepticism) and prove herself through a series of ordeals. Unlike “Frozen,” which spiked the formula with genuine surprise, “Moana” unfolds more or less as expected. Which is just fine, really. Archetypes are there for a reason: to provide reassurance and encouragement amid the squall and uncertainty of life.
There are some touching and amusing zigzags on the way to the film’s sweet and affirmative conclusion. Moana inhabits a bright world of water and sunshine, into which the filmmakers insert a handful of visual and musical showstoppers. The best of these is probably a glam-rock pastiche called “Shiny,” performed by Jemaine Clement in the guise of a greedy giant crab. Mr. Miranda’s motor-mouthed synthesis of hip-hop and show-tune traditions provides jolts of energy and wit, matched by some clever bits of animation. Maui’s tattoos come to life, making his body an inky comic strip within the film’s splashy, colorful cartoon world.
And, as usual, you succumb to an enjoyable experience that splits the difference between mythology and merchandising. Moana is an inspiring heroine, a smart, brave and decent young woman whose individual aspirations align perfectly with a larger, world-saving mission. She is also an exuberant and appealing self-marketer, whose likeness will proliferate on school bags and under Christmas trees for a long time to come.
“Moana” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). A little naughty, a little scary. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.
A film review on Wednesday about the Disney animated movie “Moana” misspelled the name of the dimwitted chicken who is Moana’s sidekick. It is Heihei, not HeeHee.