An adventurous teenager sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana meets the once-mighty demigod Maui, who guides her in her quest to become a master way-finder. Together they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds. Along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she always sought: her own identity.
Having only watched Moana last week, I admit that I’m a little late to the game on this one, but I fell in love and I have some thoughts to share.
Beware of spoilers below!
The Story Stuff
Disney Rennaisance be damned, From Frozen to Moana, it’s safe to say that we are witnessing the dawn of a new era. Frozen was a nice way to ease us into the crazy idea that maybe not every princess’s world needs to revolve around finding a prince. Or, to be more accurate, around being found by a prince — because, let’s face it, Disney Princesses can be pretty passive creatures. But, while it can be debated whether a studio-empire can truly subvert itself, it’s very clear that Moana is an even more intentional diversion from the Disney norms.
Subversion of the Disney Empire
After nearly a century of feature-film output, audiences know what to expect when they walk into one of these animated wonders. But Moana takes all the conceits of the genre and, one by one, makes a point to surprise us — and it’s about time.
The Orphan Princess
Let’s begin with our leading lady, the so-called protagonist who is often suspiciously passive in her own tale. When it comes to weaving a good tale, a key element is to have a protagonist with a clear goal and logical motivation. Disney Princesses fall overwhelmingly flat here. Typically, the Princess just wants to go to a ball, have a prince fall in love with her, or — in the case of Snow White — doesn’t really want much at all except maybe to live… though, Snow doesn’t seem overly concerned with that either.
Oh, and her parents are dead and her stepmother is evil.
None of this is the case for Moana, who pointedly asserts that she is “not a princess,” but a (very much alive) chief’s daughter, next in line to lead her people. Better yet, she has a goal: Take care of her people. To do that, she must right a wrong enacted by a selfish demigod. Moana is up for the task — strong of mind and body.
The Family Dynamic
Did I mention her parents are alive and there’s no evil stepmother?! It’s a pretty novel concept for Disney. Granted, Frozen didn’t have an evil stepmother, and I did love the movie, but they still milked the orphan princess(es) angle.
Instead, Moana has a loving and supportive family. Her father has strict rules against her voyaging, but this is because of his own trauma and fear. Outside of that, he is not overprotective or intent on marrying her off. He simply wants her to be a good, strong leader. The same is true of her mother (though we don’t see much of her). We also get the wise, kooky grandmother archetype, and we use her death as a motivation for Moana’s adventure. This can be a tiresome trope, but it works. Moana gains strength not just from her grandmother’s passing, but from her support. Gramma Tala understands Moana, and she shares a secret with her because she trusts that Moana will use it to make the right choice. And she does.
The Female Figure
The portrayal of women in this movie is respectful and well-rounded. This is true of both their personalities and their physical figures. In terms of body-types, there is a sturdiness to all the women in the film, which supports the context of island-life in the story. It’s realistic. And yet, it does not take away from their feminine-beauty. The women aren’t made to appear masculinized — only strong and capable. It’s actually exhilarating to see.
Moana’s mother seems a little passive and a little quiet, but it’s clear that she loves Moana and trusts her judgement. Physically, she is presented as beautiful and curvy, with a detailed enough face to also show her age. The grandmother is quirky with a good sense of humour and a fun-loving attitude. She harbours important information and passes it to Moana when she believes the time is right. Her physicality is just great. Like Moana’s mother, she is also presented with an age-appropriate face and body, while remaining limber and happy. And Moana is a born-leader who has no instinct to shy away from difficult situations. She knows who she is and she’s proud of it. She is assertive, she makes decisions, and she sees her decisions through.
I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti! The ocean chose me!
Moana’s power is also presented in her body, which is thick with a strong impression of muscle and agility. Her body-type is the most realistic one Disney has ever given a leading lady. There is an obvious sense of pride in this, since the visuals are so intent on emphasizing it. But it doesn’t feel exploitative. It’s just nice to see at all!
To play devil’s advocate, though, it is worth noting that creating only non-white women as thick, curvy and strong can be seen as problematic, falling into the realms of exoticism and Othering. But, overall, I would say that there are only good intentions here. I just hope the next white Disney princess (or non-princess) is also granted the right to a healthy body.
Before moving on, there is one last woman to note: Te Fiti, who turns out to be a surprising subversion of the Evil Queen archetype. A Mother-Earth-Goddess figure, Te Fiti is at the centre of the island’s origin story and the myths that surround it. Following the removal of her heart, Te Fiti’s grief overtakes her, causing the island to slowly die. She is a victim (of male violence, no less), suffering in the aftermath of trauma. While this is not an entirely novel concept, the reveal that she had become the terrifying lava monster leads to an unexpected twist. Te Fiti is not evil. She does not need to be defeated; she needs to be helped. The resolve of the story’s major conflict is not to kill the villain. It is for one woman to recognize the pain of another woman, and to reach out to her.
Socially, empathy and love are highly feminized qualities that are easily misunderstood as weaknesses. But in Moana, they are seen as strengths. It is these qualities, in conjunction with her courage, determination and activeness, that make Moana a leader; and it is because of these qualities that she becomes a hero.
Thematically, this film has a lot to offer. Some of the key messages are, of course, female empowerment, community, and respect for nature. But, there’s also a lot to dig into in terms of environmental sustainability, grief and trauma; all of which come through the metaphor-heavy role of Te Fiti. Again, not your average Evil Queen.
The Film Stuff
From a film-art perspective, this is a great movie. The visuals are stunning with what looks like the most sophisticated animation yet. The iconography is stimulating, with the water and luscious landscapes and rich colour pallets. The narrative is straightforward, but packs a punch when it comes to thematic elements and emotional impact. The songs land, and land hard. The characters are complex enough to have depth, while remaining in boxes that children can understand.
Most importantly, the film is enjoyable to watch. From a technical point of view, it has what you expect of an animated all ages movie. Songs, humour, and after a reasonable number of try-fail cycles, a triumphant happy ending.
Finally! My biggest criticism is that it took far too long.