Walt Disney’s animated movies haven’t always provided girls with the most liberated, self-aware, or independent role models.
They can be strong-willed – and sometimes capable of combat – but even Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Pocahontas, and Elastigirl (The Incredibles), still live in a man’s world, with much of their ambition and their anxiety generated by a desire to please fathers and find husbands.
Heroic Mulan and Brave's Merida are two welcome exceptions. And now comes Moana to further explode our assumptions about the Disney heroine.
A 3-D computer-animated feature directed by longtime collaborators Ron Clements and John Musker (The Princess and the Frog, Aladdin), Moana is the rare mainstream blockbuster set in a matriarchal universe. And its namesake hero is a bona fide feminist princess.
An emotionally engaging coming-of-age adventure brimming with color and life, Moana features 15-year-old Hawaii-born singer Auli'i Cravalho as Moana, New Zealand actor Rachel House as her grandmother Tala, and Dwayne Johnson as Moana’s sometime friend, the demigod Maui.
Set on a remote Polynesian island, the film opens with a brief prologue that sets up the region’s origin story. According to the wondrous Polynesian myths recounted here, the world was created not by a god, but by a goddess, a fecund earth mother who creates and sustains all of life.
The goddess’ power is challenged by the demigod Maui, who created land by pulling up islands across the oceans. A trickster and a thief, he steals tools and materials from the gods to help humans conquer nature. He teaches us about the creative use of force to master and dominate the life that grows around us.
But Maui goes too far when he tries to take control of life itself. Having been told that the goddess' power resides in her heart, he steals it, thinking that he can use it to create life on his own. Instead, his violation all but kills nature. Without her heart, the goddess shrivels up into a hideous monster, and nature everywhere begins slowly to dry up and die.
Enter Moana, the chieftain’s precocious teenage daughter, who will one day inherit his crown.
When her island is hit by natural disasters, Moana decides that the only way to heal her home is to find Maui and force him to restore the goddess’ heart.
So begins a daring sea adventure as Moana sets off -- alone, save for her pet chicken -- to find Maui and persuade him to return the heart.
Moana isn’t preoccupied by boys. She has more important things on her mind. And, happily, the filmmakers resist the temptation to turn Moana and Maui's relationship into a romance. The petite teenager and the dashing, muscle-bound Maui develop a friendship on equal terms.
Moana never takes itself too seriously. It’s enriched throughout with an anarchic sense of humor and features scenes of absurdist slapstick comedy. That includes an extended battle scene that has a group of pirates attack Moana and Maui. Turns out, the bad guys are tiny coconuts with arms and legs.
The film’s feminist ethos powers the climactic confrontation between Maui and the goddess he has wronged. In the end, it’s a transformative act of reconciliation that sets things right.
Moana 's great heart and great humor actively subvert the violent, egocentric, macho mind-set that dominates so many popular stories. It can hardly be expected to change prevailing attitudes on its own. But it’s a start.