Why ‘Moana’ Matters

Disney delivered on its latest princess adventure, and box office sales definitely reflect the public’s engagement with the film. Promotional materials promised Moana to be a high-seas adventure for all ages, focusing on a fiercely independent young woman discovering who she was meant to be.

The film’s cast of incredibly gifted vocal actors brings each character to life (even Alan Tudyk’s HeiHei the chicken). The music unifies the film in a way unparalleled since Randy Newman constructed the New Orleans soundscape of Princess and the Frog. Young Auli’i Cravalho elegantly represents an entire people group untouched by Disney (with the exception of Lilo and Stitch).

However, with popular success comes comparison. How did it stack up against Disney’s latest behemoth, Frozen? Does it live up to the hype? Will she be a good role model for young kids?

The one review most unnerving for many is the notion that Moana and other princess of color are the same. “Moana is just Pocahontas with water.” “Moana isn’t anything new.” Anyone who leaves Moana with that understanding missed the entire film.

Sure, teenage Moana shares characteristics with many Disney princesses. She and Pocahontas understand the weight of coming from prominent families and the implications of continuing a legacy for the sake of a community. She, Belle and Mulan know what it’s like to share a bond with their fathers. Moana, Mulan and Pocahontas have tight-knit bonds with their grandmother figures (because, ya know, Grandmother Willow isn’t exactly human…). Pocahontas sang about going just beyond the riverbend, and Moana dreamed of what lies just beyond the ocean’s horizon.

But Moana’s story delivers so much more. 

Moana offers a fresh narrative to the Disney princess line: adventure often comes at a cost. This is something we’ve yet to see a Disney princess struggle with understanding. Adventure to Moana means more than just escaping the palace walls for a stroll around the marketplace. It’s more weighty than wanting to shoot for her own hand in marriage. Moana’s decision to leave her family stems from following the rawest desires a person has, not just an adventure forced upon her by impending conflict. Sure, Moana had to return the stone. However, we all know that Moana would’ve escaped to the ocean eventually, with or without a quest.

This differs from any other princess we’ve seen. Mulan set out to save her father and family’s honor. Anna ventured into the snow to save her sister. Pocahontas defied her father for the sake of knowledge and to experience love.

Moana is the first princess who acted largely for herself. It’s a character arc historically saved for males.

Moana might be the first case of a true female bildungsroman in the Disney canon. 

So, while Moana might have traces of other Disney princesses (as those Disney princesses had traces of others in them), she truly does more for the brand than any other princess before her. Not only does she represent a culture largely ignored by the Disney company, she represents a revolutionary new path for any female Disney lead.

I could go on about the lush scenery, the stellar music, the meaningful dialogue between Moana and Gramma Tala, the detailed and stunning representations of Polynesian culture. However, the biggest recommendation I could make is this: Moana means more for kids than just being another princess movie. Take your daughters, take your sons, take your teenagers, take your grandparents, take everyone you know.

The message is both timeless and timely: take hold of your adventure, look beyond the horizon and you’ll go far. 

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