In a country boasting the largest Polynesian city in the world, it's a sure thing that Disney's Pasifika princess movie Moana will be welcomed with open arms and parental wallets.

After all, aside from its setting in our big blue back yard, it comes with a very big game of name-that-voice. Moana can, at times, sound like a pre-colonial episode of Bro'town.

Tem! Jemaine! Rachel House as Moana's crazy grandma! Oscar Kightley in the small but pivotal role of "Fisherman"!

Maui voiced by Dwayne Johnson and Moana voiced by Auli'i Cravalho.
Maui voiced by Dwayne Johnson and Moana voiced by Auli'i Cravalho.

Yes, it can sure feel like this movie is from around here. That's even if Moana herself is voiced in perky Mickey Mouse Club style by Hawaiian teenager Auli'i Cravalho.


Similarly, Maui, her demi-god crew mate, is larynx-ed by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. He brings his Samoan heritage to bear. His "chee-hoos" are particularly excellent.

His Maui is a beefy exaggeration of his Rock-ness. That's already caused a backlash among those who think cartoons are no place for artistic reinterpretations of mythical supernatural figures. Or, y'know, fun.

Funnily enough, Maui's chief talent, apart from hauling entire nations from the sea and occasional solar netting, was shape-shifting.

But he's not fat. He's just drawn that way. He's a bouncing ball of fun and demi-god giant ego - his signature song is You're Welcome, essentially an ode to his own awesomeness.

He does shape-shift into various animals (collect the set kids!) and wield a mighty fish hook. His torso tattoos tell their own story of his past glories and they're a neat hand-drawn touch among the high-definition precision computer animation of the rest of this.

Moana may be a Disney Animation production but it's got Pixar-level wow-factor to the way it looks. The white sand and the water looks especially amazing.

So too does the attack of the Kakamora. They are vicious little creatures which are three parts coconut to two parts Minion to one part Ewok. They mount what's a nautical version of the chase from Mad Max: Fury Road done with Lego Movie loopiness.

But even in a movie which boasts Kakamora as well as a giant lava-limbed volcano god, the best villain is Jemaine Clement's giant crab Tamatoa. He presides over a deep-sea lair of treasure in a very Smaug-like fashion.

Characters Gramma Tala and Moana in the film, Moana.
Characters Gramma Tala and Moana in the film, Moana.

Clement's David Bowie-channelling song Shiny is a show-stopper, threatening to outdo the film's central Disney princess empowerment-ballad How I'll Go as the score's biggest earworm.

There are abundant decent tunes elsewhere too, some co-written by Broadway man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with Opetaia Foa'i of pioneering Pacific music group Te Vaka.

That Moana has songs sung in Foa'i's native Tokelauan, a language which has less speakers than the population of a cinema multiplex on a rainy Christmas holiday afternoon, is really quite something.

So, Moana doesn't lack for music or moments, characters or culture. And it has some self-referential fun trying to deny it's a Disney princess movie.

But it doesn't have much originality, or a story that has anything much new to say.

Other than what several Disney princess flicks have said or done - follow your dreams, being a girl is no hindrance, look after your animal sidekick no matter how stupid they are - before.

Set in ancient times, Moana's quest is to restore a sacred stone to earth goddess Te Fiti, the absence of which has caused a blight on the coconut crops and fish stocks. Maui, who stole the stone, must be busted out of island exile to help.

The characters Pua and Hei Hei from the Disney film, Moana.
The characters Pua and Hei Hei from the Disney film, Moana.

Can't help but think that this inconsequential ecological fable is a missed opportunity to say something about the contemporary environmental threat to Pacific islands like Tokelau from climate change and rising sea levels.

Here, though, the ocean is a benevolent spirit who anoints chief's daughter Moana as a chosen one. She grows up an otherwise dutiful daughter, wanting to venture beyond the reef of her island Motunui despite her father's (Temuera Morrison) orders.

She's encouraged by her grandma (Rachel House), who, despite calling herself as "the crazy old lady in the village", knows her granddaughter is destined for bigger things.

Moana departs Motunui by sailing canoe, finds Maui and the fun begins.

There are frequent times though when this ocean-going quest becomes narratively becalmed. The relationship between Moana and Maui is less one of gifted mortal and flawed demi-god, than mutually irritated teenage cousins and it's just not that interesting.

It's a pity grandma didn't come along for the ride.

An early draft of the Moana script by Taika Waititi, who, with Clement created the parody play The Untold Tales of Maui, had the demi-god and his brothers involved. That would have been one crowded waka.

But with Waititi uncredited here, it would seem any true irreverence (other than Maui's girth and big headedness) has gone overboard too. And despite its exotic setting, this is a conventional if cautiously progressive Disney princess movie.

Maui voiced by Dwayne Johnson and Moana voiced by Auli'i Cravalho.
Maui voiced by Dwayne Johnson and Moana voiced by Auli'i Cravalho.

Yes, it's nice that her local fanclub will now have a Moana to toughen up the squad of all those other singing Disney gals with great hair. Thankfully, she's more Merida from Pixar's Brave than fairy tale figure.

And her movie does a good job of being Once Were Voyagers, illustrating Polynesian navigational sailing abilities of pre-European times in beautiful sequences.

Just a pity the movie itself wasn't a little more adventurous.

Apart from those occasional dull patches, it is enjoyable.

But for a film with a signature song entitled How Far I'll Go ("But the voice inside sings a different song") Moana could have done with taking things a little further.

Verdict: Disney's Pasifika demi-god movie semi-great.

Voices: Dwayne Johnson, Auli'i Cravalho, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison
Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
Rating: PG Running time: 113 mins