You would be forgiven for getting so lost in the world of Moana that the story itself becomes merely a distant hum. Disney's newest animated extravaganza takes as its inspiration the crystal blue waves and lush green island mountains of Polynesia, making the landscape into a 3-D storybook. The computer animation, so much crisper and more vibrant than the all-white X-Y planes of Frozen, turns the film into a celebration of (bio)diversity. And not a moment too soon for a world that keeps needing to be reminded that this is all worth taking some effort to save.
Part of getting lost in Moana's world is honestly appreciating the culture at its center, as the film may be Disney's most committed effort yet to accurately depict the lifestyle of the setting its animators have parachuted into. The studio recruited Pacific Islander talent and researchers, which it deemed the "Oceanic Trust," to aid in its depiction of the region. So characters break into hula or war dances without needing to tell us what they're doing, and their natural, non-stagey interactions let us feel comfortable among them. The film achieves what the best Disney animated features do: a sense of place that is refined and specific.
Hamilton die-hards likely know Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote the original songs for the film with composer Mark Mancina, but the collaborator of arguably more importance is Opetaia Foa'i, the Samoa-born frontman to Oceanic fusion band Te Vaka. Foa'i's influence is the one felt harder on the resulting sound, which mixes ecstatic marching bass drums with the swooning melodies of tribal chants. When he trades vocals with Miranda to sing about exploring far-reaching territories on the rousing "We Know the Way," it's enough to make all budding wayfarers, young and old, grab a telescope and set sail.
Luckily, we have a surrogate to do all that adventuring for us, in the spunky preteen Moana (newcomer Auli'i Cravalho), the heir to her father's chiefdom on the fictional Te Fiti, a remote, isolationist South Pacific island. (She resents the title "princess," although one hopes she never stumbles across her own face in the Disney Princess marketing materials.) Moana dreams of setting sail for parts unknown, but dad (Temuera Morrison when speaking, and Miranda's fellow Hamilton hero Christopher Jackson when singing) keeps dragging her back to parts known, reminding her of her duties to watch over the island tribe and ensure its future.