Dreams built upon fairy tales and fantasy, princes and princesses, and everything in between can be some of the most cherished memories of childhood. But the term "Disney princess" has taken on negative connotations in recent years. The argument is that the classic female archetype seen in the likes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty encourages young girls to define femininity by beauty, and sees the main goal in a woman's life as romance and finding a "Prince Charming." And those sort of gender roles and stereotypes filter down into everyday life in the ways women are perceived in the boardroom and in politics. Disney has been well aware as to how this can sometimes come off, and for at least the past two decades tried to move their female characters away from these criticisms. Mulan is a warrior, both Tiana from The Princess and the Frog and Merida from Brave want independence and to achieve on their own merits, and with Frozen the story is about the love between two sisters and how they're saved by being true to themselves. Frozen has been hailed by some for feminist and progressive values, and been bashed by others for promoting a "pro-gay, pro-bestiality agenda." So you can't please everyone.
The release of Moana brings the first Polynesian princess, although the second Polynesian protagonist following Lilo and Stitch. Directed by two teams, Ron Clements and John Musker—the pair who directed The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog—as well as Big Hero 6 directors Chris Williams and Don Hall, with a soundtrack of songs supplied by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film goes down some of the usual Disney roads, but also melds it with the more progressive direction they’ve taken recently.
This is still a tale which follows the hero’s journey common to fairy tales. It’s still a Disney movie with animal sidekicks and supernatural guides. But, like a tropical Frozen, it’s also a movie that positions a female character as wanting to define herself on her own terms, and the equal to any man in her quest to save the world. Moana is not defined by a love story—in fact there isn’t one in the film, leading many to claim this is the latest in Disney’s move to embracing diversity and “feminist” heroines.
And most important of all, the movie is fun.
From Caroline Siede at BoingBoing:
Interestingly, the image of the “Disney princess” is still irreparably tied to the three women who kicked off the genre —Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty— despite the leaps and bounds Disney made in the subsequent Renaissance and Revival eras. (In Batman terms, that’s like arguing that both the campy 1960s series and Christopher Nolan’s dark take on the character can only be judged as a packaged deal.) Unsurprisingly, the princess films made in the 1930s-1950s reflect the sexist gender politics of that era. (After all, Snow White was released only 17 years after women earned the right to vote). On the surface, these films reinforce rigid gender stereotypes: Women are good at cooking, cleaning, and looking beautiful. Men are good at rescuing ladies and fighting monsters.
Yet it’s women who are the titular characters in these three films. The leading ladies get the memorable songs, the iconic costumes, and the emotional journeys, while their male love interests are generic—often unnamed—supporting characters. The princes may do the physical rescuing, but they are very much presented as “prizes” for our heroines to win (albeit through conventional means of being beautiful and suffering silently). While contemporary blockbusters struggle to populate their worlds with more than one token woman, these early Disney films offer a wide range of female characters. Snow White’s Evil Queen, Cinderella’s Stepmother, and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent remain three of Hollywood’s most memorable female villains. And long before Frozen celebrated female friendships, Cinderella and Aurora relied on female fairies for help, guidance, and encouragement. These films troublingly imply that only beautiful women can be heroes, but it’s still a fairly progressive step to depict women as romantic leads, villains, and supporting characters all in one film.
As a small child, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is chosen by the ocean to fulfill a great journey and feels a calling to explore the world. But she’s been forbidden by her father, Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of the village of Motunui, to travel beyond the reef that surrounds their island. In many ways, she’s the prototypical “hero,” whether they be named Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins, who feels there must be something more beyond the horizon.
The reason Moana has been chosen is the heart of Te Fiti has been taken by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). It has caused a ripple of consequences in the world’s ecosystem that has brought about a great darkness that threatens life itself. With a bit of a push from her grandmother (Rachel House), Moana discovers the truth about her people’s past, defies her father’s wishes, setting out with only a not-so-smart chicken named Heihei (Alan Tudyk) into uncharted waters, face giant crabs (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement) and pygmy-like pirate coconuts, in order to find Maui and undo the damage.
Since acquiring Pixar in 2006 and the elevation of John Lasseter as the head of Disney’s animation endeavors, the tone of Disney’s output has changed. Instead of multiple straight-to-video sequels cashing in on their past glories, the content released by the studio has veered toward re-examining the very nature of their story model in both animation and live action. Also, the movies may be made to sell toys to children, but like the classic Disney films, they deal with very mature themes.
At its core, Zootopia is a story rooted in the very real issue of discrimination and how stereotypes take root in a society. Big Hero 6 confronts the helpless feelings surrounding death. Wreck It Ralph is about accepting who you are, but not letting it define who you can be. Most of the Disney movies deal in loss, regrets, and pain that must be overcome to find “happily ever after.”
From Michael Rechtshaffen at The Hollywood Reporter:
While the studio may have in the past faced criticism for whitewashing cultural storylines, both the look of the film’s characters and the accompanying voice casting have been carried out with notable sensitivity. In addition to 15-year-old Cravalho, a native Hawaiian with a nice dramatic range, and Johnson, who is of Polynesian heritage and also does his own singing here (is there nothing The Rock can’t do?), supporting players Morrison, Rachel House (as Moana’s encouraging grandmother) and Jemaine Clement as the bug-eyed, crab-like Tamatoa are all New Zealanders of Maori descent.
Effectively interweaving those Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions with their own distinct sensibilities, screenwriter Jared Bush, who also penned this year’s Zootopia, and the quartet of directors manage to work in plenty of offbeat humor at every inventive turn. At one point, Maui insists the chief’s daughter must be a princess because all princesses wear a dress and are accompanied by an animal sidekick.
But it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some songs, and for that the House of the Mouse has employed Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda along with score composer Mark Mancina and Samoan musician Opetaia Tavita Foa’i to create a soundtrack full of vibrant, hopeful, and catchy music that helps propel the story.
It’s also interesting that Disney has found success in their animation doing something most of the major studios, and even Disney to some degree, has problems replicating in live-action productions: depicting diversity, with women and minorities as the main characters in big budget films.
From Brent Lang at Variety:
“We’ve had a series of films with empowered women doing amazing things,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “There’s something in that that’s sticky and resonates with a broader audience. It’s fresh and different, but there’s still something familiar and relatable to the movies we’re making.”
It also comes at a time when the consumer base is diversifying. Studies show that black and Hispanic moviegoers over-sample as a portion of the population and the film-going audience remains majority female. Moreover, the movie business is increasingly a global one, with more than 70% of revenues for most major Hollywood blockbusters coming from foreign audiences.
At a time when the entertainment industry is engulfed in an ongoing debate about the lack of meaty roles for women and minorities, Disney has thrived by creating vehicles for females and people of color.
- The myth of Māui: The actual Polynesian myth on which the character of Maui is based is for the most part described accurately in the film. In the legends surrounding his existence, Māui is a trickster demigod responsible for the creation of the Hawaiian Islands by putting his fish hook into the ocean floor and tricking his brothers into pulling on it, he lassos the sun and forces it to slow down in order to make the days longer, pushes the sky higher so people can stand, and (a la Prometheus) gave the gift of fire to humanity.
- An ugly demigod?: There has been some controversy over the Maui character design. Back in June, there were news reports quoting at least one New Zealand parliament member as claiming the movie was culturally insensitive by perpetuating stereotypes of Polynesian people as obese “half pig half hippo” caricatures. However, since Maui is voiced by the current Sexiest Man Alive (who also happens to be of Samoan heritage) and is not depicted as weak in the slightest, some of the criticism has gone away. Although Disney has not escaped totally from all criticism, and did get into some hot water: The studio had to backtrack and apologize for Maui Halloween costumes that were basically brown-skin bodysuits emblazoned with tribal ink.
- Polynesian wayfaring: As depicted in the film, the exploration of the Pacific Ocean by Polynesian peoples was done in incredibly audacious ways. Polynesian explorers traversed long distances across a body of water which covers one-third of the planet’s surface, without a compass or sextant, in canoes. And they did it with only the stars as their guide.
The early European explorers who first encountered the Polynesians could not believe that a stone age people, with only simple sailing canoes and no navigational instruments, could themselves have discovered and settled the mid-Pacific islands. Accordingly, they dreamed up elaborate theories that explained the presence of the Polynesians in the middle of the Pacific, while denying to them the ability of having reached there through their own sailing abilities. For example, in 1595 the Spanish explorer Quiros imagined a great "Southern Continent" stretching from Asia far into the Pacific across which their ancestors walked to a point from which, by a short canoe crossing, they could reach the Marquesas. Other early explorers invoked sunken continents, transport by the first Spanish voyagers, and even special creation of the islands to explain the presence of Polynesians in the middle of the Pacific.
Not until the late eighteenth century with the coming of Europe's second Age of Exploration did a reasonable hypothesis about where the Polynesians came from, and how they managed to discover and settle their island world, begin to emerge. Whereas explorers of the previous European age of exploration were primarily searching for new routes to the riches of Asia, those of this second age sailed the seas primarily, in Braudel's words, "to obtain new information about geography, the natural world, and the mores of different peoples." In the Pacific, the leaders of this new approach to oceanic exploration criss-crossed the ocean, finding and mapping the locations of islands, cataloguing the plants and animals found there, and investigating the islanders, their language, and customs. Only then was the true extent of Polynesia realized, and was credence given to the idea that the ancestors of the Polynesians could have intentionally sailed into this great ocean to find and settle so many scattered islands.
- ‘You’re Welcome’: The song You’re Welcome was written specifically for Dwayne Johnson by Lin-Manuel Miranda in order to fit his voice.
- Kakamora by way of Mad Max: The Kakamora, who are pirate-coconuts, are directly based on the Doof warriors and war boys of Mad Max: Fury Road.
- Identity (spoilers for the film’s finale): If there’s a common theme central to The Hero’s Journey, it’s the idea the journey is not only a movement from one place to the unknown. It’s also a search which clarifies who the hero is. The reason the story pattern is common to so many myths is because it speaks to the revelation of truth within oneself, as well as the outer world, and growing from it.
“There’s this nagging question that Moana feels the entire movie, which is, ‘Why was I chosen? Why did the ocean choose me?’” [Moana screenwriter Jared] Bush told BuzzFeed News. “And the reason she’s able to discover that Te Ka is Te Fiti is because she and Te Fiti have gone through a similar thing. They’re both in search of their true identity.”
When asked if the finale was an attempt to redeem past Disney narratives that focus primarily on male heroes, Bush didn’t hesitate, saying “100%, yeah.” Moana producer Osnat Shurer told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview in mid-November that she views the title character as “an agent of change,” and it rings true throughout the movie. Moana can patch a roof, dance, crack wise with a demigod, march right into that creepy cave and bang that drum; she is Moana of Motonui, and you will board her boat.
The final moment between Moana and Te Fiti is reminiscent of Frozen, when Anna sacrifices her life to save her sister’s by letting her own heart freeze. Though Moana and Te Fiti aren’t related by blood like Anna and Elsa, the sacrifice underscores the large role nature plays in the film. “The idea that what we perceive as the villain of the film is actually ‘nature wronged’ was always an idea that we had, and wanted to build toward,” Shurer said. “It ties back to everything we learned when we spent time in the [Pacific] Islands … that our relationship with nature is the key, honestly, to our lives.”