I got to see Disney’s Moana the other night, and aside from being hugely entertaining (who knew “The Rock” could sing?!?) and beautiful to look at, the film marks something of a turning point in Disney animation. This time, it’s not the amazing advances in animation techniques (though the film is amazing), it’s not the incredible soundtrack (though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs are incredible), it’s not the great vocal cast; it’s the story.
My friend Jason Porath has a new book out, based on his popular website, Rejected Princesses. The point of his project is to showcase women who would never be the subject of a Disney musical, but Moana makes me think somebody at Disney has been following the site and said “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!” Moana is a young woman who would fit right in with the group in Jason’s book. She and her film casually dismiss or subvert every single trope and cliche of the Disney Princess genre.
Moana is the first “Disney Princess” for whom romance is never mentioned or even hinted at. This is an action-adventure story about a smart, fearless, resourceful and (to use the buzzword) strong girl setting out to single-handedly save the world (spoiler alert: she does), without a single mention of marriage, boyfriends, romance or love of any kind except her love for her island, family and the sea. There’s nothing wrong with romance or love stories, but there is a lot wrong with telling girls that this is the only kind of story they should care about.
There is also a complete lack of any of the usual sexism; not once does anyone suggest that she can’t do something because she’s a girl. It’s assumed from the start that she will grow up to be the next chief of the island, and not one character ever voices an objection. Throughout the film, the male and female islanders are shown doing the same things together, whether gathering coconuts, sewing nets, dancing, sailing or getting a tattoo. The primary source of conflict between Moana and her father is that he’s afraid of what will happen if she tries to sail beyond the reef, not because she’s a girl, but because it’s a long-established tradition of their people that nobody sails beyond the reef. The battle of the sexes is, for what seems the first time in a Disney movie, simply nonexistent in Moana, and it’s done so matter-of-factly and without attention being called to it that you don’t even notice (well, you don’t notice if you’re a guy; women notice) until you start thinking about what made this one different from previous Disney movies.
Some commenters have compared it to Mulan; a movie based in Asian folklore about a brave girl going out to save her family over the objections of her parents, spurred on by the spirit of an ancestor and accompanied by a really lucky animal. That’s something of a glib, broad-strokes comparison, and it misses the fact that Mulan is not a companion film, it’s an ancestor. There’s a clear evolution in the Disney line (which includes a couple of Pixar films) that culminates in Moana; any future “Disney Princesses” are going to be very different indeed.
If we go all the way back to the start of the “Disney Renaissance” of the 1990s, we find Ariel, The Little Mermaid, longing to be “where the people are,” but most specifically, where Prince Eric is; her story revolves entirely about her pursuit of romantic love. Everything that happens is in the context of the love story. Next, there’s Belle from Beauty and the Beast, who wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere” but meets her prince and lives happily ever after in a castle right around the corner from where she grew up.
We can skip Jasmine (Aladdin) and Nala (the Lion King) because they are both plot devices, serving as the object of the star’s attention in their films; their stories are unimportant to the hero’s story. The next princess in the Disney line is Pocahontas, who, like Belle, isn’t looking for or really interested in romance, but at the end, it’s her love that saves the day. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the first time the hero doesn’t get the girl, so the film diverges from Hugo’s novel by pairing Esmerelda up with handsome and heroic Phoebus, a minor character in the book elevated to second hero in the movie strictly to maintain the mandatory love story. Like Jasmine and Nala, Hercules’ leading lady Megara serves primarily as a plot motivation for the hero. (In a way, Hercules is the movie that’s closest to Moana in theme, focusing as it does on a demigod’s adventures among humans, but Moana completely flips the script and makes the demigod a supporting player.)
Mulan is next, and this is the first landmark on the way. Like Belle and Pocahontas, Mulan isn’t interested in marriage or love, though the movie opens with her being trained “to catch a husband.” Whatever romance develops (do we count the direct to video sequels?), it happens after the end of the movie and isn’t a motivator for any of the action, but a central part of the movie is Mulan being told what girls can’t do and then stridently defying convention.
The next “princess,” aside from EVE in WALL-E, and skipping over all the female supporting characters in movies like Tarzan, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch, and Treasure Planet (though Kida of Atlantis is very much a progenitor to Moana in a lot of ways), is Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and again, romance takes a back seat to self-determination and ambition, until she learns she can have both, and the handsome prince becomes a partner in her grand restaurant plan. More and more, Disney’s princesses are moving toward partnerships of equals working together, with a lot less of the dashing hero rescuing the damsel in distress.
Tangled’s Rapunzel is another princess who isn’t looking for love; she sees Flynn/Eugene as a means to escape her tower prison, but inevitably the story reverts to a traditional Disney love story with all the trimmings, though it’s pretty well established that she is the more capable of the two.
Then we get to Brave. This is where the Disney tradition really begins to shift. While Merida, like Belle and the others, is not looking for a husband, and like Mulan, she’s being groomed for a marriage, the men put forward as candidates are all far removed from the Handsome Prince archetype, and the story quickly shifts to one about mother-daughter love. There’s also surprisingly little of the usual “you can’t do that because you’re a girl” business this time out; Merida can ride, fight and shoot better than the men, and apart from the expectation that she will marry and be a docile wife, everyone’s okay with her adventurous spirit.
Like Brave, Frozen redirects the story to another kind of love, this time between sisters Anna and Elsa, though there is a subplot about Anna falling for a handsome prince who turns out to be a cad. The two princesses carry on the tradition of bucking the status quo, but the status remains quo; princesses are supposed to dwell on love and marriage.
For decades, Disney has alternated between “girl movies” (princesses) and “boy movies” (everything else, but mostly action-adventure); this became overt with the branding of the “Disney Princesses” merchandising campaign, a big money-maker for the studio that turned out to have unexpected consequences. They so successfully branded the Disney Princesses as a “girl thing” that it affected box office; boys didn’t want to see a “girl movie,” and it showed in the receipts. Producers tried to avoid this by giving their movies gender-neutral titles like Tangled and Frozen, but nobody was fooled; they knew a princess movie when they saw one. Which brings us to Moana.
This is the first time Disney has created a “princess” whose story is not a princess story; it’s a straight-up action-adventure story with all the trappings, only the fearless young adventurer who saves the day happens to be a girl. She stands toe-to-toe with a demigod (the Polynesian equivalent of Hercules) and challenges him, and though he comes to respect and admire her, there’s no love story. There’s no expectation of a love story. There’s no longing for love, no parents urging her to get married, no would-be suitor pining for her, no group of guys jockeying for a chance, none of that stuff.
What is there is a girl who sees a solution to the problem that threatens her village, so she sets off to find the demigod responsible and force him to fix it, and it’s an incredible ride, full of surprises and unexpected delights, not the least of which is how much it looks like a classic Disney movie without ever looking like a Disney Princess movie. In earlier times, Moana would have been a Rejected Princess.