MOANA (9.5 out of 10) Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker; Written by Ron Clements, John Musker and Jared Bush; Starring Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison and Rachel House; Running time 103 min; Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements; In wide release November 23, 2016

It has been a fantastic year for animation. With few exceptions, nearly every film has been engaging, wonderfully told and animated and has moved the genre forward. I was quite positive that we had seen the best there was with Kubo and the Two Strings, but then along comes Moana that just might give it a run for best animated movie of the year.

Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) lives on the island of Motunui and is the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and next in line to succeed him as leader of their people. Headstrong and resourceful, Moana tries to resign herself to her responsibilities but constantly finds herself drawn to the siren song of the ocean which her father has forbidden her and the rest of their tribe from venturing out in. Although they used to be wayfarers, at home on the sea, previous tragedies have left them afraid of sailing past the reef that surrounds their home. A strange rot soon begins to affect their land by killing their crops and driving off the fish they need for food. Moana learns that the shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) was responsible for stealing the heart of a god and releasing the lava monster Te Kā that is slowly poisoning the world. Encouraged by her Gramma Tala (Rachel House), she sets off on a quest to find Maui and force him to return the heart to its rightful owner and stop the blight before it is too late.

If some of this setup sounds familiar, that would be because the directors behind this, Ron Clements and John Musker, told a similar story decades ago that many should be familiar with – The Little Mermaid. While Moana uses some of the same ideas from that classic, it does so in such a wonderful way that any comparison to Mermaid is largely washed away.

While it’s as much a fairy tale as many other Disney movies, first and foremost, Moana is a tale about a strong and interesting young woman who powerfully drives the plot and follows her heart -- not to fall in love or find her Prince Charming but instead to save the lives of all she loves. Even though her main purpose seems to be to locate and force Maui to help her, the responsibility of saving her people falls solely on her, and she is very much the heroine in this story. Thankfully, newcomer Auli'i Cravalho is up to the task presented and gives a heartfelt and meaningful performance as the voice of Moana. Not only that, but she can belt out songs like a seasoned pro, which makes it all the more exciting to see where this young performer will go from here.

She shares the spotlight with Maui voiced with charm and sarcasm by Dwayne Johnson who proves that there’s more to him than WWE and action films, as he can sing too! Maybe not Broadway caliber, but he proves he’s up to the challenge and delivers one of the catchiest songs in the movie.

Rounding out the cast, for comical relief, is the incredibly stupid and clumsy rooster Hei Hei (clucked lovingly by Alan Tudyk) as well as the Ocean itself which is just as important, if silent, a character as the Magic Carpet from Aladdin.

And of course the soundtrack is first rate since Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame wrote the lyrics and partnered with Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’I for the music. While it’s not as much of a musical as Frozen (which had a stronger recurring theme running through it), the songs that are there are fantastic and will be stuck in your head long after leaving the theater. Of note, especially, is Moana’s How Far I’ll Go (an easy nod for Best Song) as well as the Bowie-influenced Shiny sung by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame.

Moana has it all. It’s charming, funny, beautiful, has heartwarming songs and an incredible story that everyone will love. Young girls especially will identify with Moana, and it’s refreshing to see a movie aimed at kids show that women can go on to accomplish anything even in the face of adversity. Go see this with your family, as I guarantee you’ll love it.

You’re welcome!

9.5 out of 10

Previous Post: 'Star Wars Rebels' 3.8 'Iron Squadron'

Next Post: 'Bad Santa 2' Review

Tags: dwayne johnson , lin manuel miranda , hamilton , maui , moana