The short feature that preceded the film was cute, standard Pixar fare. The message I took away from is was that one is allowed, if one is very brave, to step a little bit outside the box enough to have a little life in the drudgery of servitude to the system. Don't change anything that might make a difference; don't leave; just live enough to keep your contribution to the monolith at an acceptable level. Living is for the elites, not you.
The animation, costumes, and scenery were good. I liked the attention to detail in things like the never-shod appearance of feet, coconuts of various ages, richly drawn and animated flora and fauna, and some diversity of body types among the people on screen. There were adults and children of various sizes and morphologies, including skinny and muscular and slightly corpulent men, thin and thick women. I don't remember there being much variation on hair texture or skin tone and frankly don't know enough about Pacific Island peoples to know whether it matters.
The soundtrack was well done, never clunky, effectively supporting the story. The songs were well written and fit into the story, though I was displeased with the "singing face" on characters holding sustained notes in most of the songs. But there was something missing: a foley. Why did the film sound like it was all done on a soundstage? No background noises.
The story was a disappointment.
A girl, the only child of the island chieftain and a mother that may as well be absent or dead for all her contribution to story and character development, is chosen by the sea to mend the damage to Te Fiti, creator of the world (the goddess Hina by another name?), that had been wrought by the demigod Maui (trickster in Polynesian mythology). Against her father's wishes, with the encouragement of her paternal grandmother and the sea (good, fun, creation of a character without a face here), she embarks on a quest that fits the European hero's journey narrative.
The original screenplay, written by Taika Waititi, had five or six brothers for Moana and a gender-based theme. The directors wanted a "girl empowerment" story focusing on Moana's journey. Apparently many drastic changes were made to the story and character motivations until it looked like a lumpen thing wrought by a committee. In the end, the story that remained was a plucky girl standing up to a hostile, abusive male partner, cajoling and bribing him into doing the right thing, and having faith in herself. There is no message for boys and men here: they are written off as incapable of self improvement, reflection, or emotional growth. The message for girls and women is a stale crust of "do all the emotional work, play the games of abusive and powerful people to achieve the common good, demand the right to learn, and be born to the right circumstances".
The script repeatedly acknowledges its own shallowness. At some points, Moana is called a [Disney] princess. The grandmother slyly tells us she is the designated crazy woman. The characters take actions to break out of their roles only to be put back in their place by The Sea or other characters ... "well, I tried". Moana is implied to be the first woman chieftain of the island, which might have meant something if there had been any competition for the role she was shown as fully capable (and somewhat reluctant) to assume.
This wasn't the insight into Islander culture I wanted to see. It was colonized all the way down to the tribe's ancestors voyaging until they found a new land that would provide them rich resources with little work and staying put like sea cucumbers. There were hints of legends and oral tradition but so covered with Disney paint and patchwork they were hard to see. Were the coconut pirates anything other than an homage to Max Mad: Fury Road? Did no monsters other than the laughably incompetent crab exist as anything more than shadows in the deep?
The tattoos were nice. I'm curious how much authenticity there was in the depiction of applying them.
I'm glad I saw it. For all my criticisms, I enjoyed the experience and much of the story itself. I would not see it again, though I could see myself recommending it to others interested in Western depiction of Polynesian stories and as media to be critically consumed. In the current global political climate, it may be as much as we can hope for in the coming years.