Moana: “Not a Princess.”
With recent film endeavors, Disney Animation Studios has begun deconstructing one of their defining characteristics: the Disney Princess. Beginning in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney has cultivated the cultural image of a princess as hyper-feminine, kind, enchantingly beautiful and surrounded by adorable animals. The plots of the princess films typically follow some version of a romantic plotline, usually culminating with the princess falling in love with the charming prince and overcoming some trial or villain along the way, as in Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. In doing so, Disney has had a part in constructing the ideals of American femininity for several generations.
Arguably beginning with the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog the studio has been intentionally diversifying the racial/ethnic identity of its lead female characters, as well as its traditional constructions of femininity to better reflect reality. Additionally, the goals and desires of those characters has moved from centering on finding love and security to more specific aims, such as opening a restaurant (Tiana in The Princess and the Frog) or exploring one’s personal identity outside others’ expectations (Merida in Brave and Elsa in Frozen). With their most recent film, Moana, the studio even further breaks away from its beloved princess tropes.
Moana, directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who also directed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog, is the story of the daughter of a village chief who longs to explore the ocean. The action begins when the idyllic island on which Moana lives is inexplicably threatened. Moana is chosen by the ocean to receive the heart of a goddess who will restore Moana’s island if her heart is returned. To accomplish this, she must sail to find the demigod Maui, who stole the heart originally, and convince him to assist her.
In a /Film interview with the directors, Musker and Clements reveal two of their major concerns in making Moana: ensuring both that they were respectful to the Polynesian cultures they were portraying and that the focus was mostly on the title character. To prepare for making the film, Musker and Clements researched Polynesian mythology in the South Pacific, meeting people with whom they kept in contact to help them with the story. The directors were also intentional about casting mostly people of Pacific Islander descent/residence, including Hawaiian-born Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne Johnson, who is of Samoan descent, as Maui.
(Mild spoilers follow) Through the film’s characterization of Moana and her narrative trajectory, the directors ensured that she did not become simply a retread of the classic Disney princess. The film, like Frozen, even directly engages with Disney’s princess tropes. In Frozen, this is accomplished in part by the juxtaposition of the villain and romantic-interest role with the character of Prince Hans. In Moana, something similar occurs in dialogue on one of the many occasions where Moana and Maui bicker. Maui patronizingly calls Moana “princess” to which she angrily responds, “I am not a princess.” Maui argues, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” While Moana does fit Maui’s narrow definition of princess, she also rejects the stereotype in several ways. Significantly, the film does not have a romantic plot or even subplot. The film does not end with her falling in love with Prince Charming, but with her deservedly leading her people. Rather than passively accepting her fate or waiting for someone to save her, Moana acts bravely to save her island, challenging expectations of herself and her own limitations.
According to the /Film interview, Moana’s story apparently underwent several story changes in order to ensure that she stayed at the center of the action. In one of the original versions of the film’s climax, the director says Moana was trapped under water until she was saved by Maui. Instead, the film was changed so that Moana saves herself, with Maui only there in a supporting capacity. One of the common similarities of the aforementioned princesses is that they usually must be saved by the prince, so in intentionally rewriting the film and allowing Moana to save herself, the filmmakers have transcended this un-empowering image of female characters as helpless. While the film is not without issue, it is one of the most empowering of Disney’s films to date, hopefully signifying continued growth in the future.