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'Moana's' cultural celebration is a high-water mark for 2016 big-screen animation
Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) is seen in a scene from "Moana." Maui is a demigod half god, half mortal, all awesome. Charismatic and funny, he wields a magical fishhook that allows him to shapeshift into all kinds of animals and pull up islands from the sea. - photo by Josh Terry
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 isnt 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 worlds 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 (Aulii 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 islands 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 Tuis people increasingly desperate, and he fears that Moana will use their legitimate need as a means to satisfy her own adventurous spirit.

But Moanas 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. Hes 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 Moanas 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 octopus named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) and an army of killer coconuts who show up in a battle sequence inspired in part by last years Mad Max: Fury Road. And in the sidekick department, Mauis 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.
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