She’s accompanied on her journey by a cross-eyed chicken, who supplies plenty of good sight gags, but not much help on the high seas (there’s real terror and excitement in these scenes of ocean peril, which are rendered with some of the film’s most impressive animation). When she finally discovers Maui on a remote island, he’s quite something – a preening, self-satisfied mountain of a man, with telltale tattoos on his left and right breast that act as his conscience and provide running commentary. And in “You’re Welcome,” he gets the best introductory song this side of Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me,” which is a pretty pronounced influence (one of the directors is Ron Clements, who also co-directed that film, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog, and more).
The songs are the primary point of entry and interest for the older moviegoers who will flock to Moana this weekend, as they’re co-penned by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. “You’re Welcome” is the most obviously Miranda-ish cut (at least on the surface, thanks to its breathless pace and spoken-word break), though Jemaine Clement’s Bowie-esque “Shiny” is also a highlight – as is his character’s closing line, shouted to the escaping Moana and Maui: “Hey! Hey! Did you like the song?!”
The script by Jared Bush (who also penned Zootopia, so at least somebody’s having a good 2016) is full of little witticisms like that, self-aware without falling into the trap of winking smugness or empty pop-culture references. But it’s the pathos that resonates, the timeless themes of questioning and understanding one’s own purpose – and grasping history to understand the future, an idea captured by a surprisingly moving scene that finds Moana singing to her grandmother’s ghost. Moana has its dead spots; it has a bit of trouble getting going, and the fire-and-darkness climax is fairly uninspired. But there’s a heart beating in this sweet and cheerful film, and the unlikely friendship between its main characters transcends formula to give the picture its soul. It’s a treat, for family audiences and musical theater geeks alike.
Moana is out today.