I’m an unabashed “Disney Kid.” A girl whose formative years stood firmly in the ’90s, Disney was a very big part of my childhood. I remember watching The Little Mermaid entirely awestruck. It’s the first Disney Princess movie that I remember watching. I’ve seen them all since, but Ariel and her boldness really impacted me. Watching it later in life with my own daughters really opened my eyes to how far we’ve come even just from “under the sea.”
I think Pixar and Disney’s Brave was the first major stride in the right direction. While there were themes within the plot that revolved around finding the fiery Merida a suitable husband, Brave was about the relationship between mother and daughter, and a teenage coming of age story. Most importantly, however, was the utter lack of husband that Merida ultimately ended up with. The movie ends with Merida claiming her own power and deciding that no husband was the best kind of husband for her.
Brave was released in 2012– a mere four and a half years ago. It was just four and a half years ago that Disney decided that a young woman could actually make her own life choices and be trusted not to walk off a pier into the open, snapping jaws of ravenous sharks. Honestly, what did they think would happen? We would see a beloved Disney Princess save her own damn self from her outrageous shenanigans and believe men to have become completely irrelevant and execute a mass exodus? It’s preposterous, and just goes to prove the fragility of the male ego… but that’s a post for another day.
Elsa and Anna followed along with Frozen, and while there was, of course, a love story, the real story revolved around the love of sisters, and just how flawed parents can be. Again, another step in the right direction, because most importantly in Frozen‘s story, in my opinion, was that Elsa being a woman was never a point of contention to her ascent to the throne. She was the first born child of the King and Queen of Arendale, and to rule it was her birthright, no questions asked.
Then came Moana. Look, I won’t lie to you: I thought Moana was the best movie I saw last year, animation or otherwise. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I mean, it was set in Polynesia, so, duh. The music was exceptional, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Seriously, try and get “Where I’ll Go”, or “You’re Welcome” out of your head. I dare you. More important, however, was the story.
Moana is chosen by the ocean to return the stolen heart of Tafiti back to its home in order to save her island from rot and death. It’s not a task that I’m sure I’d be up for, let alone a 14-year-old girl (what I estimated her age to be). She’s made of sturdy stock, though, and has the support and wisdom of her eccentric grandma and the people of her village to help her complete her mission. Maui, played brilliantly by The Rock, plays the demigod she recruits to help her, much to his chagrin; and she’s got her adorable sidekicks, standard for every Disney production.
Moana prevails over every obstacle with determination, humility and confidence. However, she also faces her fair share of self doubt. She is utterly relatable, and for a mom of two young girls, that is so refreshing. They need to see girls face the same trials and tribulations they too will face. While neither of my little women will be tasked with saving their home and an entire village of people (I hope), they will face their own obstacles and their own self doubt when struggling with them.
They will remember that Moana saved her village and her people without it having to be about a man. Yes, the shape-shifting Maui helped Moana immensely, but there wasn’t any sort of romance in their relationship. The discussion of Moana’s ascent to the leader of her village was never something that was up for discussion. There was no mention of a husband, or love or anything your typical, everyday Disney Princess pines for. She was the first born child of the Chief, and that was that. She could fulfill her familial duty with or without a husband.
I enjoy an astonishing amount of privilege as a middle class white woman. My daughters will enjoy those same privileges. The women of color in my life do not, however, enjoy those same privileges, nor have they been given equal artistic representation. Every single human face featured in Moana is brown. Every. Single. One. There is not a white person to be found, and it is about damn time. The entire world does not look like me, or my blonde daughters, or my blue-eyed husband. Everyone deserves to see someone that looks like them on the big screen in vibrant technicolor, being a day-saving, butt-kicking badass.
Auli’i Cravalho, who hails from Hawaii, did an exceptional job as the voice behind Moana. She sings like a bell, and brought our young heroine to brilliant life. She was the perfect choice.
For me, Moana is about as good as it gets as far as Disney Princesses go. Princess Jasmine has always been my favorite and, make no mistake, she is still at the tippy top of my list… she just shares the top spot with another brown-faced princess now.