Disney’s ‘Moana’ Follows Polynesian Heroine’s Journey

Disney Moana movie

She’s Polynesian, she refuses to be called a princess, and hers is not a love story. Will Disney’s ‘Moana’ start a trend toward more diverse characters and storytelling?

Can we get this out of the way?

I’m a guy and I can appreciate the Disney princess pantheon. I won’t claim a creepy infatuation with the genre, but sure, I’ve hummed my share of catchy Disney tunes, from “Under the Sea,” to “A Whole New World,” and how can anyone resist the hit song from Frozen?

Unless there’s ice in your heart, you have to appreciate the Disney princess genre from at least a pop cultural lens.

Now Disney will release Moana on November 23. It features the obligatory princess, but this one’s a little (well, a lot) different from the others — she’s Polynesian, she refuses to be called a princess, and hers is not a love story but a heroine’s journey. The title character is played by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho and costars the always-likable Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the demigod Maui.

Disney Moana movieAuli’i Cravalho stars as Moana and Dwayne Johnson as Maui.

Producer Osnat Shurer said the team looked everywhere to find the lead voice actor. They found the perfect match in Auli’i Cravalho, a native Hawaiian who turns 16 the day Moana releases. Cravalho articulated how meaningful cultural representation is for her. Speaking at San Diego Comic-Con this past July, she said, “Each Disney princess is unique in their own way, but Moana is especially close to my heart because she’s Polynesian.”

Her costar, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, told a crowd at D23 Expo 2015, “When I first got into this business 15 years ago…I had a goal, and the goal was to be in the Disney family.” He continued, “Samoa is in my blood, and to tell a story inspired by the South Pacific is truly a great honor.”

Cravalho shares that enthusiasm. She told the Hollywood Reporter, “When I was little, I used to dance around the house singing at the top of my lungs. But I never imagined being in a Disney movie, being Moana — representing my culture in that way.”

Not only will she represent her culture, but she’ll help Disney tell a new kind of story for their female leads. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, 40-year-plus Disney Animation veterans who helmed several features, from The Little Mermaid to Aladdin, wanted to tell a hero’s story, particularly a heroine’s story. Clements said, “We saw this as a hero’s journey, a coming-of-age story, in a different tradition than the princess stories.” Musker added, “I don’t know that any of the other princesses we’ve been involved with we’d describe as badass.”

Disney Moana movieMoana concept art via Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Musker explained that inspiration for this movie came five years ago. “The world of the South Pacific was so intriguing. It seemed like a real draw to me. It led me to read Polynesian mythology and it was such a rich vein of storytelling to me, in particular Maui. It seemed ideal, to me, for animation.” Musker and Clements set out to research in the South Pacific, talking with navigators, chiefs, experts and anyone who would answer questions, such as what it was like to grow up on an island.

Clements said, “It changed us in so many ways. We learned about the history of navigation, we learned about their connection to the ocean, we heard phrases like ‘know your mountain.’ Your mountain is basically everything that came before you, and if you don’t know what came before you, you don’t know who you are. We felt like so much of this we wanted to put in the movie.”

Disney Moana movieMoana and demigod Maui. Image via Walt Disney Animation Studios.

On first glance, the new Moana movie seems a good place for Disney to build a more diverse offering of stories and characters. The Disney brand has been strong, consistent and popular among children (and their parents). Those of us happy to see a more diverse Disney universe and empowered female leads are hoping this trend continues.

Why is this such an exciting time?

We’re seeing a move toward Hollywood often casting against type, where gender and racial roles are becoming intertwined in many ways. Overall, the demographic is really expanding to be more inclusive, so this should reflect in our entertainment as well. Seeing more brown faces on the big screen — even if they’re animated brown faces — can only be a healthy cultural move within the expanding zeitgeist. And yet, as we have seen, tensions still can creep in.

Back in late September, Disney had to pull costumes featuring Maui due to its “cultural appropriation.” And, yes, the costume was a bit much.

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog had its heart in the right place, but it certainly walked a thin line between what a Disney movie usually looks like versus what African American viewers might prefer to see on the big screen. There were parts in that movie, while sweet at times, that still felt somewhat cringeworthy. And then there’s the problem of having a very short list of Disney princess minorities featured in the lineup.

Can Disney’s Moana start a trend? It’s possible. In a sense, we’re all pulling for Moana and its potential to change things.

Disney Moana moviePua and Moana via Walt Disney Animation Studios.

And if that support isn’t enough, Moana even has music that’s already making waves. Producer Osnat Shurer said, “We brought together the most amazing musical team, starting with Opetaia Foa’i, who has helped us bring together our music, along with Mark Mancina, who is also responsible for the score as well. And for us, the third member of the team is Lin-Manuel Miranda.” With the box office pull of Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, Moana has all the makings of another Disney blockbuster success.

Director John Musker said he hopes Moana will bring the culture of the South Pacific “to greater appreciation around the world.” A movie like this will likely serve as a bridge for other nationalities to be explored as well.

Eventually, we won’t be having these conversations about ethnicity, culture and gender representation. By then, the animated universe will truly reflect the diverse world we live in.

Disney is expanding their offerings, and this should be celebrated. More diversity means more variety in storytelling and a broadening of the Disney brand that’s already appealing to viewers around the world. end

 

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