Imagine your typical Disney princess. Is she someone who crowns luscious golden locks with a tiny waist and a slender pair of legs fit for an equally dashing prince?
If so, you are indeed very familiar with what a Disney princess should look like. In director John Muskeer and Ron Clements’ latest Disney film, Moana, such princess doesn’t exist, and we feel blissfully refreshed!
The title character, 16-year old Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), isn’t your typical Disney princess. Heck! She doesn’t even want to be called one. For Moana, she is only the daughter of the island’s chief, which the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) begs to disagree.
For us, she’s the heroine and the kind of ‘princess’ we all long to watch on screen. With her realistic, healthy physique and well-rounded character, it’s great to see a heroine that’s created to defy all representations of unrealistic concepts of beauty that has been the mould of past princesses. Plus, the absence of a love interest really makes both the movie and the character a standout.
Storywise, the formula used in the Polynesian fairy tale movie isn’t something new and of which Disney has been using since they struck gold with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The story is culture-specific and family-friendly with magic and comic relief to rely on. Here’s a young woman, leaving the safety and comforts of her home, discovering a new world that’s designed to torment her, and eventually finding her destiny, usually in a form of a love interest and lastly, defeating her evil counterpart. Such tried-and-tested formula has been Disney’s trademark.
In Disney’s Moana, our young character grows up sheltered by her stern parents on the island of Motunui. As the local chief’s daughter, Moana has a simple, yet happy and loving life. Despite the idyllic life on the island, Moana has this wanderlust that she longs to fulfil- a calling that she unknowingly inherited from her ancestors who were ocean navigators themselves. However, this yearning is always stopped by her play-it-safe father, who enforces a rule that no one from the tribe is allowed to go beyond the shallow reef that surrounds the island.
A natural crisis strikes the island. The fruits become spoiled and the fish seem to have disappeared from the ocean. It’s there that the adventure of Moana sets into motion.
Defying the orders of her father to remain on land, Moana sets sail on a quest to return a precious gem, the “Heart of Te Fiti”, to its rightful owner. It’s the only way she can restore the balance of the world and save her people from starvation. But she can only do this with the cooperation of the same person who stole the stone, Maui, a prank-prone demigod whose massive physique is as massive as his vanity and ego. Tagging along is her foolish pet rooster, Heihei, whose presence proves to be more of a liability than an asset for our determined heroine. Returning the Heart to its rightful place is, indeed, easier said than done.
Moana’s quest is unlike any other. She sets out on a journey not for her personal gain, but for the future of their little island in the Pacific. Her battles are greater and fiercer as depicted in an action-packed sequence involving little coconut pirates attacking Moana and Maui on their little boat.
Of course, disobeying one’s parents isn’t something Disney wants to promote. Rather, Disney wants to deliver an inspiring message telling our inner child to seek out the bigger world out there that’s filled with boundless opportunities. It merely tells us to go beyond what we are limited to. It’s about finding our purpose and living out our destiny. Moana’s disobedience isn’t just your typical teenage angst. For Moana, saving her people and living a seafaring life is her destiny. And for that to be fulfilled, she has to break free from her parent’s clutches.
For a film about a young woman on an almost impossible journey, Moana is quite the hero that kids will surely look up to. The reversal of roles between Moana and Maui is also evident, as the powerful, ultra-macho demigod (who is essentially a superhero) is only the plucky teen’s sidekick. Discarding the element of a love story, the titular character stands out among other Disney heroines as a radical protagonist.
Maui was initially the star of the story as planned by Musker and Clements, but the story took a great turn to centre the story around a young girl. This idea sprang up when, during the directors’ first trip to the islands, they met beautiful, powerful Polynesian women. Taking the risk paid off big time, as getting Moana on board adds for a more authentic Disney princess to the list.
The comedy in the movie supplied by Moana’s stupid rooster Heihei and Maui’s narcissistic ways makes the movie a great drug to fight the blues. Dwayne sure still has his expert comedic chops in his favour as he brought to life the goofy Maui. For Moana’s part, Cravalho worked her charming voice to make our Moana a lovable character from the start.
Sure, Disney isn’t breaking new grounds when it comes to the story. You can easily predict where the story is heading as this is what we are familiar with anything that Disney has produced. Changing the formula would somehow lessen the impact of what Disney has worked so hard to achieve when it comes to promoting diversity in its characters. However, Moana is a very entertaining animated film that delivers rambunctious humour, unforgettable characters, strong music, and cool action sequence that Disney has perfected for over 80 years.
Had not for Musker and Clement’s extensive research in the Polynesian islands during Moana’s pre-production stage, they wouldn’t have come up with the studio’s most culturally authentic character yet. With the help of a group of historians, choreographers, anthropologists, linguists, and cultural experts from the Pacific Islands, the directors were able to capture the finest details of Moana, from the design of its characters, to the landscape of the story, down to its catchy song lyrics and movements. The film is successful in respecting the world it evokes, given how the representation of those cultures is subjected to a lot of scrutiny and expressions of pride. It’s like the animation studio’s sincere apology to us for all of its cultural blunders in the past.