It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that "Moana" will be making gobs of money at the box office when it hits theaters November 23 — after all, it's got a character voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a bunch of songs written by "Hamilton" mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.
But in case you're still worried, let me put you at ease: this movie is incredible, thanks in no small part to its brilliant central heroine, Moana.
As the first Polynesian princess, Moana is already unlike any other Disney heroine before her. But while her story seems familiar on the surface, there are elements of "Moana" that are more progressive than anything we've seen from a Disney film in decades — and that's something we could desperately stand to see more of in our current cultural climate.
She doesn’t just forgo a love interest — it never comes up in the first place.
“Moana” isn’t the first Disney heroine without a love interest — Elsa from “Frozen” and Merida from “Brave” don't have them, either. Both of those films, in fact, go out of their way to refute the idea that a woman should base her self-worth on romantic relationships; Elsa calls out Anna for getting engaged to someone she’s only known for a day, for example, and Merida spends her entire movie railing against the very idea of getting married.
In contrast, romance doesn’t even get a mention in “Moana,” not even in an attempt to downplay its importance. There’s no scene where our titular heroine locks eyes with a cute guy across the island, or where her father pesters her to get married when she becomes chief, or where she loudly proclaims that she doesn’t need a boyfriend to have value in her world. It just never comes up.
There’s nothing wrong with romantic story beats, of course, but the fact that their absence in “Moana” feels like a revelation is proof that our culture relies on them far too much.
In fact, she has a perfectly lovely platonic friendship instead.
Quick, name a Disney movie where a male and female character of the same species are friends (and no, Disney-distributed Studio Ghibli films don’t count). Having a hard time? That’s because historically, if a Disney heroine confides in a male character, he's either a love interest, an animal sidekick, or an older family member.
But Moana and Maui don’t fit any of those parameters, and they still manage to be best buds by the end of the movie. Of course, the age difference certainly helps quell any romantic potential between the two characters (The Rock is 44 and Auli'i Cravalho, Moana’s voice actress, is 15), but that in itself is pretty revelatory, too. After all, how often do you get to see that kind of dynamic in an animated movie?
She’s the chosen one.
You don’t need to be an academic or an expert to know about the “chosen one” trope, where a lone hero is prophesized to save the world from evil. After all, it shows up everywhere from “Harry Potter” to “Star Wars.” These chosen heroes aren’t always male, but they do tend to be male by default, and female chosen ones like Buffy in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are the exception; in those types of stories, the hero’s gender is a novelty.
Moana, however, is an extremely straightforward chosen one story that doesn’t depict her as worthy despite her gender. Sure, Maui dismisses her, but throughout the movie it feels like it’s more to do with her age and relative inexperience — he uses the term “kid” and “girl” almost completely interchangeably. She’s the chosen one, and that’s all there is to it.
She’s also a surprisingly smart deconstruction of the strong female mentor trope.
Of course, as much as Moana is “the chosen one,” she doesn’t think she’s meant to save her people herself — her actual goal is to get Maui to do it for her. In essence, she’s given herself the role of the competent female support character who leads the less-competent male protagonist to greatness, whether by training him or just convincing him to get up off his butt and do what he’s supposed to be doing.
Writer Tasha Robinson calls this the Trinity Syndrome, named after Trinity from “The Matrix,” who opens the movie like a goddamn badass then shrinks away so Neo can take charge. “For the ordinary dude to be triumphant,” she writes, “the Strong Female Character has to entirely disappear into Subservient Trophy Character mode.” Other examples include Hope Van Dyne in “Ant-Man,” Emily Blunt’s character in “Edge of Tomorrow,” Wyldstyle in “The LEGO Movie" ... and the list goes on and on. Heck, even other Disney movies fall victim to this; remember how Simba was perfectly content to chill out and eat bugs with his new adopted dads in “The Lion King” until Nala made him go back to the Pridelands to confront Scar?
Of course, Moana doesn’t totally buy into this trope to begin with, solely by virtue Moana being the protagonist. But the movie also doubles down on its deconstruction by making it very obvious that both Moana and Maui have different skills to teach one another, and — without spoiling too much — by giving her the opportunity to succeed where he fails.
She goes out of her way to denounce her “princess” status.
During a heated argument about halfway through the movie, Maui attempts to put Moana down by glibly referring to her as a princess. When she points out heatedly that she is not a princess but the daughter of a chief, he shoots back, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
It’s clearly a meta-joke meant to poke fun at the ambiguous marketing the Disney Princess franchise uses so that it can present a more inclusive line of characters — Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan aren’t princesses by the strictest definition, either, but as of 2015 they still appear alongside Snow White and Cinderella in the brand's advertising. But it’s also the first time I can recall a Disney film using the term “princess” in a pejorative sense, perhaps signaling that they’re willing to look beyond the gendered marketing terms that first made the company so successful to begin with.
She’s being primed for leadership, and she’s actually pretty damn good at it.
Despite the fact that most Disney Princesses (actual “princess” or otherwise) are some kind of royalty and the line of succession flows through them, not many of them are actually depicted being leaders. More often than not, their primary duty to their kingdom is to be wed; when they are taught to lead, those lessons usually involve sitting still and behaving ladylike, which they are generally terrible at.
Moana doesn’t have that problem at all; nobody has to tell her to sit still because while being chief isn’t her first choice, it’s something she does actively want to do well. People on her island actually come to her with real decisions to make, and she is more than capable of making them. Even when she finally does venture outward, she does it explicitly to help her people.
She doesn’t reject her culture — she learns from it.
Ever notice how many Disney movies that depict non-European cultures involve breaking the status quo? Pocahontas defies her culture’s traditions by falling in love with an outsider; Jasmine defies her culture’s traditions by choosing to marry outside of her social status for love; Mulan defies her culture’s traditions by defying its gender roles and joining the military. When you look at the pattern, you can see why some cultural critics might worry that Disney movies encourage assimilation into Western culture, even as they're using the aesthetics of non-Western cultures to tell their stories.
Moana challenges her home’s traditions, too; she wants to explore beyond her island, but no one has left her village for generations. However, she’s not depicted as more enlightened or modern than everyone around her; instead, she learns that she’s actually tapping into a part her heritage that her village has forgotten about. She's embracing and preserving an important aspect of her people’s history, rather than rejecting it — proving that you don't have to tear down your whole society to make it better than it is.