The titular heroine of “Moana” tries to avoid the standard operating procedure of Disney films by insisting at every turn that she is not a princess. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) insists she is merely the daughter of the chief of Motunui. The young lady doth protest too much, but at least the real power on the idyllic Polynesian island is matrilineal.
Further bucking the pattern of movies released by the Mouse, Moana’s parents don’t die immediately – but her grandmother Tala (Rachel House) does. While her father maintains the “Finding Nemo” rule that kids are never allowed to go beyond the reef at the island’s edge, Tala urges Moana to commune with the ocean. As a tot, she saves a baby sea turtle from the frigate birds and the ocean entrusts her with the heart of the sea, a sacred pounamu stone. With that green rock in her locket, Moana has a precocious ability to part the blue waters (she is much cuter than Charlton Heston with the Red Sea).
When the Motunui coconuts go bad and the fish catches aren’t plentiful, Moana must defy her parents and set out to restore the heart of the sea to our earthly mother, Te Fiti. She shoves off with supplies and a dumb chicken called Heihei who is about as useful a companion as Wilson the volleyball.
Hence her need to enlist Maui, a shapeshifting trickster of a demigod played by the predictably delightful Dwayne Johnson. The man can transform into an eagle, a whale, an iguana or the most fabulous minor deity of all: The Rock. Having brought us humans the tides, the sun and the sky, he flexes an ego as large as his pecs – his introductory ditty is, after all, called “You’re Welcome.” (If the songs sound a little less pat than usual, it’s because they’re written by “Hamilton” librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda – as ever, Disney knows how to tap a moneymaker.)
Maui is constitutionally unwilling to be the sidekick in Moana’s quixotic pursuit but she sagely flatters him into participation by insisting, “You’d be a hero.” Her pitch proves irresistible and they navigate the ocean together. In the words of the real-life prophet Stevie Nicks: “The sea changes colors / But the sea / Does not change,” so Maui makes himself useful, by teaching the girl to wayfind by the temperature of the current and the arrangements of the constellations.
There are travails aplenty, from tiny, poison dart-shooting pirates to Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) a rapacious and resplendent crustacean. He’s an undersea Croesus, less interested in power than in vamping through a “crabulous” performance of his song “Shiny.” He swings and misses at matching Ursula’s villainy in “The Little Mermaid” but is amusing enough against his deep-sea backdrop, which resembles a black light party at the Treasure Island in Vegas.
The last boss, Te Ka, seems scary but then Moana has an unshakeable, if inadvisable, willingness to steer her canoe directly into lava to plant the heart of the sea back where it belongs. In 2016, it’s a very pleasant idea that the natural world can be restored by divine kindness. Given the reality of climate change, Te Fiti’s largesse might be the best chance we’ve got at survival (it has, at the very least, a better shot at succeeding than more coal mining).
‘Moana’ is showing at the Sebastiani Theatre. Rated PG. Running time 1:46. Visit sebastianitheatre.com.