Is The Success Of ‘Moana’ An Indication Of The Empowering Direction Disney Will Steer Toward?

Although it seems as if the Disney Princess model is what dominates among animated female characters being produced by Disney studios, every now and then they surprise us by launching a powerful story featuring a young girl or woman who goes against the narrow standards thrust upon women (aspire to marriage and babies only) and shows us what it looks like when a female Disney character is empowered beyond the norms.

The latest of these anomalies is Moana, the young Polynesian girl (who also happens to be a princess) on a mission to save her tribe and community’s culture from extinction. It is the type of adventurous and heroic role normally reserved for male characters, which is why ‘Moana’ is a cut above the rest, especially for young female audiences.

In the film, the titular character is torn between her heart’s mission, and respecting her father’s wishes to stay closer to home. It is a battle not doubt many women are familiar with, even today. Also a rarity in this film is the presence of a love interest for Moana. This is is also a very important decision which was made by veteran Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker (‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Aladdin’).

It was released just before Christmas and topped the US box office 3 weeks in a row. So far it has amassed over $480 million in international box office sales, proving what a hit this film is, on par with the intense popularity of ‘Frozen’ a couple of years ago.

The character was voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, an Hawaiian-born American actress who lends quite the air of authenticity to the life of Moana. Her sidekick Maui was voiced by Dwayne Johnson. This is the first Disney film set in Polynesia, and Moana is the first Disney female character of color to take the lead without taking on the dynamic of romance.

As points out, it has been a long road from seeing the standard Disney Princess go from disempowered woman whose story is hinged on her acceptance by a man, to female characters who work, go on adventures, fight battles, and defy the norms. Characters such as Mulan, Pocahontas and Merida from ‘Brave’ started to show cracks in the heavily built-upon romantic foundation (although some of the aforementioned were warriors as well as love interests). In ‘The Princess and the Frog’, audiences  got to see Tiana as a career woman, a restaurant owner, and in ‘Zootopia’, lead character Judy Hopps is determined to become the city’s first bunny rabbit police officer (spoiler alert: she is successful!).

In ‘Frozen’, although there were 2 love interests for Anna, the pivotal relationship upon which the film’s story rested was between her and her sister, Elsa. This was a clear departure from anything we had seen from Disney. Some of the criticisms about this film, however, were that the animation specifics were still the usual unrealistic, tiny waist, big eyes and perfect physique that is not found on a single woman in this world.

Yet everything about Moana shows that Disney is either listening to the voices of critics and audience-members who want to continue seeing more empowered female characters, or they too are bored with the same old.

Head animator for the film, Amy Smeed, spoke to Screen Arts & Cultures and Art & Design students at the University of Michigan about the formation of the characters, and what she particularly wanted to see in Moana’s scenes.

“She’s very courageous and fearless, and I love that about her. And she’s very athletic … The scenes that I got to animate, I picked Moana,” said the Michigan native.

To understand why this film is so different to other Disney animated films and why Moana is not your typical female character, we have to go back to the two directors Ron and John, who made a point of making Moana into a heroine.

“We saw this as a hero’s journey, a coming-of-age story, in a different tradition than the princess stories. I don’t know that any of the other princesses we’ve been involved with we’d describe as badass,” they told TIME magazine.

The two men wanted to draw upon Polynesian mythology from a distinct Polynesian perspective, as they saw most of the stories about Pacific Islander culture being told from Western storytellers and writers. They traveled to Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti five years ago, and spoke with local village chiefs and archeologists. They learned some of the key components of the culture’s stories and myths were sailing and navigation, yet these seemed to have been forgotten 2000 years ago.

Central to many of these mythical stories were male characters and demigods, but directors Ron and John thought it would be far more interesting to put a teen girl at the center of a story about reclaiming lost culture, and make the demigod, Maui, her sidekick instead.

“We thought it would be very appealing to do a female empowerment story that didn’t center on any sort of romance,. We saw it as sort of a ‘True Grit’-type story: the determined girl who teams up with a washed-up guy. They have this adventure and she finds her true calling—and saves the world in the process,” they said.

The directors were also determined to base her physical features on a realistic portrayal of an Islander girl who embarks on the type of physical activities similar to what we see Moana doing. It is a journey of self-discovery that has far more long-lasting appeal among young audiences than a princess model. The messages and themes seen throughout ‘Moana’ can have a far greater impact in the life of a young girl, than, say, ‘Cinderella’.

“The film offers us a vision of a powerful and wilful young lady who will take on everything that comes at her to be successful. She is the epitome of the modern working woman,” write Martyn Griffin, Mark Learmonth, and Nancy Harding who all contributed to the article on The Conversation about Disney’s inclusion of careers in the lives of their female characters in more recent years.

Writing for, Sydney Cohen says the film’s focus on nature, culture and storytelling lay an empowering foundation for a character like Moana to embark on an adventure without being stereotyped to fit a narrow mold.

“‘Moana’ is a refreshing break from classic tropes in the lineage of Disney princess movies. With the absence of a male love interest, the film is another success in providing feminist cinematic role models, especially in a tradition of passive female heroines,” she writes.

If this is the direction Disney animated studios will be taking for its female characters from now one, we are totally on board with this. The attention to detail and making conscious decisions from casting, all the way to how the foliage in the background is portrayed is what is going to keep audiences coming back for more, especially if we can now start to see female characters as heroines and adventurers alongside men, instead of just objects of romance.

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