In the very last months of the dumpster fire that was 2016, Disney pulled out the much anticipated Moana for their holiday release. Set in ancient Polynesia, Moana follows its titular character (voiced by Disney’s Hawaiian native Auli’i Cravalho) on her journey across the ocean to restore the Heart of Te Fiti, which was stolen a century before by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). If Moana’s home island is to survive the ocean’s crumbling ecosystem, she must find Maui and help him return the Heart so that the goddess Te Fiti will revive life in the region.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid fame, Moana is an airtight film filled with adventure, loss, and the harrowing pursuit of destiny. The movie is poised to win one or more Oscars, as it boasts unthinkably colorful and cool animation, with the added bonus of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i turning the gears behind the soundtrack. The story itself is a seamless example of the Disney formula at work. We watch Moana grow up in song, get called to the ocean despite not knowing how to sail, find Maui stranded on a deserted island, battle a giant crab, face a lava monster that threatens to stop them from ever restoring the Heart, and eventually solve every puzzle, internal and external, that stands in her way. Absolutely no loose ends are left hanging by the end of the film; every question, once opened, is closed with a satisfying answer crucial to the story’s emotional arc of finding one’s inner truth.
This might sound like a classic hero’s journey–and it is. But being “called” to something is usually reserved for male leads, who spring into their adventures with reckless abandon all in pursuit of their destiny, slaying a monster or two along the way. The world of the princess is much smaller, and always about marriage and the home. Jasmine desires freedom from the social confines of a princess, and somehow finds “freedom” in marrying Aladdin anyways. When Merida and her mother reconcile over their conflict about Merida’s issues with arranged marriage, it isn’t solved by her mother realizing that forcing her daughter to marry a man she doesn’t even like is akin to selling her off like cattle; it’s solved by Merida adding an asterisk to the deal and making marriage “for love.” Ariel doesn’t even want to escape the confines of marriage at all–she just wants to get married on land and also have, like, feet. For female characters, Happy Ever After is mandatory, and it demands a wedding.
With a massive scope and a daring lead, Moana resists this confinement by choosing to not box its lead into a princess role at all. Only in one clearly self-referential scene does Disney allow the word to be mentioned. Maui teases, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” But Moana is a “princess” only by virtue of her status as Lead Girl in Disney Film; in fact, she’s not a princess at all, but the next in a hereditary line of village chiefs. In an early musical number, Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison, song sung by Hamilton alum Christopher Jackson) teaches his daughter everything there is to know about leadership and tradition, singing to her, “Our people need a chief/ and there you are.” Not, “Our people need a chief/ so let’s find you a brave husband,” but, there you are, in the perfect place, at the perfect time, with the perfect set of skills for the job.
Like many Disney stories, Moana’s hero’s journey has a calling that is at odds with her parents’ wishes. But instead of running from the princess’ burden of marriage and submission, she grapples with the prince’s burden of leadership and duty, and spends her film working to merge the love she has for her people and the obligation she has to herself. She’s never even asked to prove that she’s worth more than her hand; she just is, and that’s an accepted fact. Moana is a young woman whose ability to lead is assumed right from the first scene of the movie, as natural, expected, and welcome as the tide.