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'Moana's' cultural celebration is a high-water mark for 2016 big-screen animation

“MOANA” — 4 stars — Voices of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Alan Tudyk; PG (peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements); in general release

The newest Disney princess isn’t really a princess, per se. But her movie has all of the best qualities fans have come to love (and expect) from Disney Animation Studios and marks one of the animation world’s cinematic highlights for 2016.

“Moana” is the story of a young Polynesian girl who sets out from her island home on a quest to save her people. Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is next in line to be chief of her small, Pacific Island village, but her heart yearns for adventure out on the ocean.

This is bad news for her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), who has worked hard to persuade his village to stay within the island’s protective barrier reef. Up until recently, there was never much of a reason to venture beyond the reef, but a growing famine has left Chief Tui’s people increasingly desperate, and he fears that Moana will use their legitimate need as a means to satisfy her own adventurous spirit.

But Moana’s passion turns out to be more than the restlessness of youth, and when she discovers a fleet of boats hidden in an island cave, she realizes that her ancestors were Wayfinders, known for their exploring culture.

Moana makes this discovery right around the time her Gramma Tala (Rachel House) gives her a beautiful green stone that is said to contain the power of creation. According to legend, a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the stone from a powerful island god, unleashing a growing darkness on the isles of the sea that many villagers blame for the recent famine.

When he can resist no longer, Chief Tui finally allows Moana to set out past the reef with the stone. The plan is to find Maui, then get him to return the stone to its rightful owner, hopefully setting things back in order.

Finding Maui is the easy part. He’s been marooned on an island of his own and feeling demonized for stealing the stone, with only his animated tattoos to keep him company. Once Moana gets him onboard, they set out to confront an increasingly difficult sequence of combatants on the way to a surprise finale.

The final product is an expert balance of strong story, captivating visuals and creativity, punctuated by some fun songs that even poke fun at the quirky musical style. “Moana” is beautiful to watch, and its biggest weakness might be that audiences will wonder why Moana would ever want to leave such an island paradise.

Still, that spirit of adventure, combined with Moana’s growing appreciation of her culture, underscore the powerful and relatable themes that will transcend the backgrounds of all kinds of audience members. Kids will also enjoy the creative and funny creatures Moana and Maui encounter on their journey, such as a bling-heavy crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) and an army of killer coconuts who show up in a battle sequence inspired in part by last year’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” And in the sidekick department, Maui’s animated tattoos and a zany rooster named Heihei provide plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle laughs.

The biggest surprise might be that despite his top billing, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is ultimately the sidekick to the teenage hero at the center of the film. “Moana” is both a celebration of Polynesian culture and an inspiration to young women and should resonate with anyone who has felt a touch of fear when faced with the unknown. One way or another, it should be on your short list of must-see family movies for 2016.

“Moana” is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements; running time: 113 minutes.

Points for parents

By Shawn O'Neill

Violence: Moana’s boat tips over from the waves and she bumps her head and is caught in some coral under water. Creatures attack the boat of Moana with harpoons and blow darts. A lava monster repels Moana and Maui as they try to get to an island. A large plant tries to eat Moana. A large crab has Moana and Maui in his mouth at different times. The crab threatens both of them and tosses Maui around. The lava monster attacks the boat aggressively.

Crude humor: Water is made warm from urinating.

Images: The lava monster may be intense for some younger viewers.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at