When you think about movie princesses a few names come immediately to mind: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora and Belle. This fab four have come to define what being a movie princess is all about. Or at least they used to.
Once upon a time a movie princess was a damsel in distress, swathed in pink and jewels, waiting for Prince Charming to come to the rescue.
Lately, however, the movies have given us a different kind of princess, one who is more into grrrl-power than girly-girl. This weekend Disney helps redefine their traditional princess in their 56th animated feature film, Moana,
The thirteenth official Disney princess is inspired by Polynesian mythology. Sixteen-year-old Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), daughter of a Samoan island chief, has a deep spiritual connection with the sea—the name means ‘ocean’ in Maori—and a severe case of wanderlust. Unfortunately for her overprotective father has just one rule for his family and subjects: No one goes beyond the reef. “It’s the one rule that keeps us safe,” he says.
When the island’s crops fail and fish stocks begin to deplete the high-spirited princess sets off on a quest to lift the veil of darkness enveloping her home. An ancient folktale tells of demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and his theft of the heart of Te Fiti, a carved stone that holds the essence of life. If she can find Maui and make him return the stone heart, perhaps she can save her people.
“Moana” is an action-adventure with the emphasis on the adventure. “There’s more beyond the reef,” she says, imagining a world that for her only exists in folk tales. That spirit is infused in every beautifully crowd-pleasing frame.
The story and adventure is relatively uncomplicated, but photo realistic animation and new Broadway style songs by “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda should maintain interest for young and old. After a slow-ish start, which sets up the story, things get lively and fun when Moana’s journey begins and she teams with Maui. At this point the characters get more interesting and the story less earnest.
One show-stopping number, “Shiny,” a glam rock freak-out performed by Jemaine Clement (who channels Tim Curry), rivals anything from recent Disney for sheer entertainment value. “I was a drab little crab,” he sings, adding, “I will sparkle like a wealthy woman’s neck!” Add to that some marauding coconut pirates and Lava Monsters, and you have a joyful addition to the Disney catalogue.
Best of all, you have a new style princess, one who looks to the future while paying homage to the past.