Just when the South Seas vibe of Disney's Moana is getting too placid for comfort, Dwayne Johnson (at least his voice) does a cannonball in the pool.
We can now agree that Johnson is not only the Sexiest Man Alive but also our strongest, lifting Moana on his character's beefy shoulders, carrying it like other hits before. No movie left behind.
Johnson voices the demigod Maui, a wowie drawn like a Macy's parade balloon version of the Rock, plus frizzy hair and tattoos telling him what to do. Maui looks funny but Johnson makes him hilarious, starting with the humble brag ditty You're Welcome, one of several composed by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. It's the kick in the sarong Moana needs around the 40-minute mark.
Until then, Moana is a lovely digital seascape, inspiring in that gently feminist Disney way. It's the flip side of The Little Mermaid, now a strong young woman desires the ocean rather than living on dry land. Be part of someone else's world, just have a stirring "I want" song, which Miranda can certainly provide. How Far I'll Go may complete his EGOT grand slam.
For now Moana (Auli'i Cavalho) would settle for sailing beyond the reef near her island of Motonui, where fishing is plentiful. Moana isn't a princess but as the chieftain's daughter she'll take over someday. Her father (Temeura Morrison) bans anyone from traveling past the reef, for reasons flashed back upon later.
Moana's destiny is clear from childhood, when lapping waves beckon, at times resembling water aliens from The Abyss. Jared Bush's screenplay reportedly blends Samoan, Fijian and Tahitian folklore into a curse brought upon Motonui that Moana must reverse. Cultural mythology gets punchlines from a brain damaged chicken. The movie is sincere, its sights and songs pleasant enough to hold interest but it's a close call.
That's when Maui steps in, saving the second half, if not the entire day. Johnson's line readings give Cavalho the pushback her character needs to expand beyond "I want" to "I will." Still, Maui's best co-star is his body art, wearing his conscience on his pecs, ink figures in judgmental motion. Touches like that change Moana's tone from noble to rollicking
The spiritual link between Moana and Ariel the mermaid may be due to Ron Clements and John Musker directing both films (and Aladdin, for good measure). Disney vets Don Hall and Chris Williams get rare credits as co-directors, which could explain Moana's lack of momentum, so not even poignancy registers.
Disney's customary short subject before Moana is the delightful Inner Workings, the liberation of a life in a rut. There's a strong whiff of Inside Out in the premise, this time with anthropomorphic organs of a middle-age office drone. Each time he considers a carefree act, a worrisome brain foresees certain death; his heart just isn't in it. Writer-director Leo Matsuda lays out a comically hopeful path to happiness, simple as a snorkel and a smile.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.