Merriam-Webster defines princess as a “member of a royal family,” “the wife of a prince” or “usually attractive girl or woman who is treated with special attention.”
Nowhere in that traditional definition do the words “spunk,” “drive” or “determination” appear. And yet the folks at Walt Disney animation seem determined to redefine what a princess is all about.
The last few reincarnations of Disney princesses, beginning with the book-smart Belle and leading up to the feisty Frozen sisters, all have the independent streak and desire to break out of the mold they were born into. However, all still had that handsome guy waiting in the wings to help save the day. The whole plot of Brave was Merida’s rebellion to being betrothed.
In Moana, Disney ups the ante again and provides a positive spin on the princess spirit. The CG-animated musical film follows the adventures of the headstrong teenage daughter of a Pacific Island chief and her struggles to find her identity.
As the daughter of Chief Tui (voice of Temuera Morrison), Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is expected to follow her village’s traditions and rules, including the one her father has emphasized since she was an infant: “Don’t go beyond the reef.”
Unfortunately for Moana — whose name just happens to be the word for “ocean” in many Polynesian languages — she is drawn to the water, which she finds wondrous and exciting.
Her kooky, lovable grandmother Tala (Rachel House) encourages Moana to follow her path to the Pacific despite her father’s wishes. When the food supply for the island suddenly becomes depleted, Moana sets forth on a journey inspired by ancestral tales of once-mighty demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who may help her save her island home. While Maui provides much-needed comic relief, it’s refreshing that he’s not a love interest, and who knew The Rock could sing?
The movie is made more beautiful by the sweeping score and musical arrangements and songs from Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Mark Mancina (The Lion King) and Opetaia Foaʻi (founder and lead singer of the award-winning world music band Te Vaka). The Alessia Cara version of the anthem How Far I’ll Go may be this year’s Let It Go.
The story is inspired by the history and traditions passed on by generations of Pacific Islanders. The filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess & the Frog) went to great lengths to research the people and culture of the southern region of Oceania to bring an authenticity to the movie.
Despite their efforts, there has been controversy surrounding the film, with critics arguing that it inaccurately depicts Polynesian culture and exploits it for profit. In September, Disney pulled a boy’s Halloween costume after Pacific Islanders compared it to “black face.”
It’s true that Polynesia is made up of many peoples and languages, and that Moana is an amalgam of many cultures including Tahitian, Fijian and Samoan. It is a fantasy land, but so was Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White, which were all based on myths and folk tales from European cultures.
Moana pays homage to Pacific Islanders by introducing us to a strong female character unlike any we’ve seen in mainstream films — a hero who is both smart and sympathetic, strong and compassionate, independent yet belongs to a group. For eons, we’ve been bombarded by images of princesses based on the beauty standards of Europeans. Why not bring forth a new face for fierceness?
More importantly, when mothers and fathers tell their daughters what it means to be a princess, the words “adventurous,” “tenacious” and “compassionate” can now be added to the definition.
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements
Cast: Voices of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement
Rated: PG (peril, scary images, brief thematic elements)
Running time: 103 min.