Wednesday, November 23, 2016

'Moana' Isn't Your Standard Disney Princess Movie, And That's A Good Thing

This review originally appeared on

Towards the middle of Moana, Disney's latest non-Pixar animated release, the demi-god Maui calls the heroine "princess." Moana corrects him, telling him she's not a princess, she's the daughter of the chief.

"You're wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick. You're a princess," replies Maui.

He has a point.

Granted, the dress she wears doesn't sparkle in any way, and her animal sidekick is a mentally challenged chicken that doesn't talk, but in many ways she does resemble a Disney princess: she's beautiful, with long flowing hair; she's rebellious; and while she may not be "royalty," she's heir to the top position in her village. (Some say chief, others say princess.)

So, yes. Disney could be accused of creating just another Disney princess. But it's Moana's differences from those previous princesses that are key.

For one, she's not white. Yes, Disney has given us Princesses of Color in the past, but let's face it, the majority of them have been alt-right approved. (Not to mention that the most popular animated Disney movie of all time, Frozen, was so white, I'm surprised you could even see the princesses against all that snow.)

For another, there is no love interest. There's no prince destined for Moana's hand, and while she does spend the majority of the movie with a beefy demi-god, their relationship is strictly platonic. Her reward is a successful quest, not a happily-wedded-after.

Moana is steeped in cultural folklore, mainly from the South Pacific islands, and is set during the time when those Polynesian natives were the explorers and settlers, long before the west arrived. The movie opens with a grandmother telling a group of children about Maui, the demi-god who created the islands, in a nice bit of animation that resembles Polynesian tattoos. (Maui's animated tattoos become a running gag later on in the movie as well.)

Moana (Auli'i Cravalho, a Hawaiian native making her screen debut) lives on the island of Motunui, where ever since she was a (really, really cute) baby, she's been drawn to the sea. Her father, Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), is convinced any attempts to venture past the island's reef will be met with doom.

But as their island begins to lose its fish and its crops, Moana believes their only hope is to leave the island, and, following the lead of her grandmother's stories, find Maui and force him to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti. It makes a little more sense in the movie, though really, it's just a story device to get Moana and Maui together.

And once they are together, the film hits its stride. The Rock gives Maui just the right amount of bravado —: he's a jerk, but a lovable one. Because this is not a Pixar movie, it means the movie breaks for songs, and even Maui gets one, the amusing and pretty catchy You're Welcome, which, along with the rest of the film's songs, has lyrics written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Of course, Moana gets a ballad as well (How Far I'll Go), but I'm not sure it's going to become a song parents learn to hate as much as Let It Go, mainly because I don't think it's going to be as big of a hit, regardless of the presence of that word "go" in there. (A better song comes care of Jemaine Clement, who makes an appearance as a Bowie-esque giant crab in love with Shiny things.)

The majority of the movie follows Moana and Maui on their ocean voyage, as Moana learns to become an ocean navigator, on the way to saving the world. And refreshingly, once Maui gets past the princess jokes, he learns to treat her as an equal, and not as a helpless maiden.

In fact, there's not a lot that's girly about Moana. On every step of her journey, her gender is never an impediment, and is rarely brought into play. Now, I don't know if that's because the movie was written by eight people, only one of whom is a woman, or because it was directed by four dudes, or if it was actually by conscious design. And it doesn't really matter. By giving us a heroine that acts the way heroes always have, perhaps Disney has finally given us a "princess" movie that can cross that mythical gender divide.

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