‘Moana’ is the feminist heroine we’ve been waiting for
She’s a strong Polynesian woman who don’t need no man
When I was a little girl, my favorite Disney movies were The Lion King and Toy Story. The Disney princess movies, while well-composed (largely by Alan Menkin) and well-written (borrowed from The Brothers Grimm or Hans Cristian Andersen), were lacking in well-developed characters. To put it plainly, the princesses were boring, passive and predictable.
It wasn’t until more active characters like Mulan, Rapunzel and Elsa and Anna came around that I started to really appreciate Disney princess movies. Finally there were princesses who I could look up to. The new princesses were taking control of their own destinies, going on their own adventures and kicking ass. However, even with the progressive shift toward more feminist Disney princess narratives, the movies still fell short in many ways: the cultures were all white, the body measurements impossible and the stories still existed around some kind of love-and-marriage subplot. Luckily, this year’s Moana is Disney’s first successful third-wave feminist narrative.
Moana stars 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho from Hawaii in a breakout performance as the voice of the titular character, alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who voices Maui, the fallen demigod with an ego of astronomical proportions. Ron Clements is the story creator and director, and he’s no stranger to Disney films, having played a role in helping to create Disney classics like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog.
The story introduces us to our heroine as a woman with a choice. Moana is drawn to the sea but expected to be the future chief of her people. Her inner turmoil is fully explored during the opening songs “Where You Are” and “How Far I’ll Go,” both cleverly and beautifully written by musical powerhouse Lin Manuel Miranda of Broadway hits Hamilton and In the Heights.
Moana is given a task by the ocean: to save her island by finding Maui, sailing across the seas and returning the heart of Tafiti to its rightful place. Moana takes off, captaining an old voyaging boat against her father’s wishes in the hopes of saving her people from imminent environmental disaster. At first glance, the story has everything: rich background in tradition and mythology, captivating characters and a mission to save the world.
What the story is missing? A marriage plot — or any trace of romance at all, for that matter. And I’m not complaining, because it doesn’t need it to be successful. The only character who could be considered a possible love interest for Moana would be Maui, and it’s made clear from the start that he is not a viable romantic option for our heroine. This movie goes above and beyond the call of the Bechdel Test, creating a captivating narrative that doesn’t rely on old-school courtship and heteronormative relationships.
On her own, Moana conquers one challenge after the next, proving her independence, courage and indomitable spirit. Her character is constantly tasked with physical trials — be it sailing an angry ocean, climbing mountains in minutes, or wrestling thousands of small coconuts (yes, you read that right). For most Disney princesses, their body type might hinder their athletic ability, but Moana is not most princesses.
Story animators of Moana made a deliberate attempt to create a Disney princess that looked different from the rest. The animation choices in Moana work to create a feminist narrative in two ways: by creating more realistic body proportions of women and by creating a more accurate representation of culture.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musket “wanted her to be an action hero, capable of action.” In order to accurately illustrate and write Moana, “the filmmakers travelled to Samoa, Fiji and Tonga” to research the people and the culture. Animators were influenced by “drawings of people in the South Pacific,” and made an effort to create a princess who resembled the build of an average South Pacific woman.
Female producers on the project pushed for a change in illustration as well, asking for a princess with “a more realistic body shape … like she’s not going to be blown over by a strong wind.” As a result, Moana is drawn with muscle and a proportionate waistline.
The movie seems to have learned from Disney’s past mistakes in animation and story-telling, and in turn, creates a self-aware narrative that brilliantly and subtly critiques Disney’s past while making way for its future.
Often times the film jokes about itself, poking fun at Disney’s obsession with princesses who have animal sidekicks and spontaneous musical numbers. “If you start singing, I’m gonna barf,” Maui jokes as Moana looks out over the ocean after climbing to the top of a mountain. This introspection allows Moana to deviate from the normal narrative and defy the odds.
Moana is purposely different from other Disney Princess stories. The animation, cultural representation and erasure of a marriage plot effectively creates a third-wave feminist movie that feels like it isn’t missing anything at all. Moana is a smart, funny, and beautifully woven story of a girl who creates her own destiny and it is the feminist movie that Disney fans have been waiting for.