“Moana” breaks Disney norm with strong female lead

Disney’s new film “Moana”—a beautiful exploration of the Polynesian culture—is a refreshingly yet unfortunately unique film in its depicted hero, an independent woman of color. Courtesy of Disney via The Daily Beast
Disney’s new film “Moana”—a beautiful exploration of the Polynesian culture—is a refreshingly yet unfortunately unique film in its depicted hero, an independent woman of color. Courtesy of Disney via The Daily Beast
Disney’s new film “Moana”—a beautiful exploration of the Polynesian culture—is a refreshingly yet unfortunately unique film in its depicted hero, an independent woman of color. Courtesy of Disney via The Daily Beast

For those Disney fans who still can’t get over “Frozen,” I would suggest taking a hint from the soundtrack and “let it go” because Disney Picture’s latest animated film “Moana” deserves praise in every category.

“Moana” is the story of a teenage girl, the character, whose destiny is one day to take over for her father as the chief of a small Polynesian island. (Yes, you read that correctly. Moana is unquestioningly presented as a leader among her people, no husband necessary.) But Moana is fascinated by the sea, and when her island begins to die, she has to save her people. With her pet rooster Heihei and the demigod Maui in tow, they take to the sea to return a pounamu stone to the goddess Te Fiti, which will bring life back to the islands. What ensues is a great adventure, interesting for all ages, filled with drama, comedy and some great music.

I ended up seeing “Moana” on a whim when I went home for Thanksgiving. As a childhood lover of all things Disney, I grew up revering Disney Princesses like Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, Jasmine and Belle. In the past few years, I haven’t kept up to date on watching Disney movies. But I’m so glad my sister suggested this movie for the the simple reason that Moana stands apart from her predecessors as a clear, intersectional feminist figure.

From the beginning of the movie, Moana is presented as a strong, independent woman of color. Moreover, throughout the movie in songs like “How Far I’ll Go,” “I Am Moana” and “Know Who You Are,” it is reinforced that Moana is cut from the same cloth as her brave, intelligent and compassionate ancestors. And while Moana is eventually paired with Maui, the male demigod character, their pairing is of necessity more for Maui than Moana. For, in a reversal of the Western mythology of the Garden of Eden, Maui lost Te Fiti’s pounamu stone, was banished to a stone island for a thousand years and needed the extra push from Moana to correct his mistake.

Even more refreshing is that not only are Moana and Maui never romantically linked (or implied to be romantically linked), there is no “Prince Charming” character in the entire film. In every Disney Princess-type movie, the prince or the princess finding a mate is the crux of the entire film. At this point, that movie structure is formulaic and predictable.

But even more important is what message the choice to deviate from that troupe sends to young viewers. As a young viewer myself once, watching movies like “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Little Mermaid” or “Aladdin,” the moral I got time and again was that princesses, no matter how independent, needed a male counterpart. And further, this male counterpart often acted as a liaison to the real world or the savior for the princess. With “Moana,” I saw a young woman with a strong sense of self presented with a substantial task and fulfilling it without needing a man to help her. And she was complete at the end of the movie without love.

Another aspect of the movie I loved was the fact that the filmmakers did not just use another culture as a backdrop for this story, but rather, the movie was immersed and foregrounded in Polynesian culture. As someone who came to the movie with very little knowledge of the history and culture of the South Pacific islands, I appreciated that, after Disney’s limited and often flawed forays into representations of other groups, i.e. “Pocahontas,” “Moana” told a beautiful and authentic story, inextricable from its roots, that was not watered down for a (presumably) mostly white audience. Rather, using Maui, a Polynesian cultural hero, created an aura around the film, as if it were telling the oral history of another canonical icon, Moana.

The animation and music also play a great role in creating a colorful and vivid image of island life. The ocean, a character in its own right, is constructed almost anthropomorphically; the bright turquoise sky, reflecting against the clear sea water, was almost distracting at times. It seemed to move of its own volition. At the same time, the water rolling onto the beaches which erupted into verdant mountainscapes, and other fecund flora, kept the viewer rooted in the South Pacific.

The music had the same effect. Familiar with Disney’s usual repertoire, I expected the movie to have a never-ending soundtrack of Broadway-esque showtunes. It did not. The music consists of a few, memorable themes. Songs like “Where You Are” and “You’re Welcome” are playful and light. In other songs, like “We Know the Way” and “How Far I’ll Go,” passion is incarnated in melodic choruses and harmonies. In almost all the songs though, there are instruments and song lyrics which nod to the South Pacific culture of the story. I think another strength is that the music supplements an already great story. One could remove the music from “Moana” and get wonderful standalone music, but one wouldn’t feel as though the story was incomplete either. But in addition to the skillfully written plot, the music acts as an agent which only heightens the drama and adventure. All of these qualities stand as tribute to the virtuosity of the composers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa‘i and Mark Mancina. Overall, I would highly recommend this movie to anyone. From the intriguing story to the engaging music to its feminist undertones, I was impressed with the entire production. One can only hope that Disney will continue producing movies that lean in the direction of telling girls of every culture that they are strong and smart, with a solid accompanying soundtrack and beautiful animation.

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