Movie News & Reviews

Dwayne Johnson is the best part of Disney’s ‘Moana’: 3 stars

Disney’s “Moana” is technologically phenomenal, visually breathtaking and a little bit forgettable.

Thankfully, Dwayne Johnson makes everything better.

Moana (pronounced “mo-AHN-a” and voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is about to inherit her family’s Pacific island kingdom, but the ocean calls to her.

Her kingly father has kept his people safe by forbidding travel beyond the island’s barrier reef, but as fishing dries up and disease strikes the coconut crop, Moana thinks it rather obvious they’ll have to venture seaward. Not just to find new grounds to fish, but also to find the demigod Maui (Johnson), who has doomed them to this landlocked fate.

This latest animated Disney musical is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who are best known for revitalizing the studio with another oceanic tale, 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.” But “Moana” feels more like the directors’ 1997 animated collaboration “Hercules,” from the big, boisterous heroes to the stylized animations used to fill in backstories — the paintings on Grecian urns in “Hercules,” Maui’s tattoos in “Moana.”

But this is Moana’s story, and you’ve seen it before. It’s a traditional escapist fantasy where the main character rebukes the patriarchy, leaves her homeland and finds her own way, traditions be damned. (Or, because it’s Disney, darned.)

For the kiddos, it’s a fine enough advertisement for pajamas, bedsheets, lunch pails and apps. For adults? Well, “Moana” isn’t nearly as compelling as “Frozen,” neither in terms of story nor in its musical numbers (some of which were penned by “Hamilton” auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda).

What the story lacks in boldness, however, is compensated in design and animation. Water, hair and gravity all flow naturally. The sunny island environment radiates happiness.

And it does feature some clever moments of slapstick comedy.

Moana — who is a strong and positive character in the vein of Judy Hopps from “Zootopia” — tries to strike a defiant tone with Maui, but he keeps throwing her off their boat and into the ocean (only to have the ocean return her to the boat each time).

Johnson, who like most of the starring voices is of Pacific island descent, is a perfect choice for Maui. But many of the biggest laughs come from the mute and immensely stupid googly-eyed chicken who has stowed away for the voyage.

Also in the plus column: The film smartly sidesteps any traditional idea of “evil” with the film’s ultimate antagonist, much as Disney did with Elsa in “Frozen.”

“Moana” doesn’t quite measure up to Disney’s most recent computer-animated efforts. Like the studio’s boy-focused cookie-cutter Marvel movies, the Mouse House’s new generation of “princess” movies relies on formula.

The kids probably won’t care. Moana, the character, is a good role model, and “Moana,” the movie, is decent enough. Just don’t expect it to resonate beyond the theater. Unlike with “Frozen,” you and your kids likely won’t be singing the film’s songs months after seeing it.

Then again, maybe that’s a good thing.

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese


Rated PG for peril, some scary images, brief thematic elements.

Time: 1:36.