Moana: A Female Heroine for the Modern World

Written by Hayley Garden; edited by Kathryn Cooperman.

All images per Disney.

In 1937, Walt Disney Animation Studios released its first feature length animated picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Regarded as a critical and commercial triumph, Snow White allowed Disney to act as a pioneer in shaping the future of animation, and dictated how audiences around the world would react to films in this medium going forward. One of the most important and long lasting impacts Snow White made on the future of animation was creating and solidifying the Disney Princess formula. The Disney Princess formula is simple. Take a female character, give her something more to pine for. Said female character proceeds to seek out adventure, chasing what she wants and leaving the status quo behind. She then meets a guy, and the rest of the movie is dedicated to their burgeoning romance. Pepper in some appearances (and a song!) from the villain to block their path, but make sure that the princess and her prince charming win out in the end. Then, they get married! This formula was tried and true, and was the backbone of Disney’s filmography for decades. Every princess movie, though dressed in different clothes, can be stripped down to the same skeleton. Even their more recent films that deviate slightly from the norm, such as Tangled and Frozen, still draw many of their story beats from the reliable well that is the Princess Formula. 

In late 2016, Disney released Moana, a movie about a young Polynesian princess who goes on a journey to discover who she is and who she is meant to be. Moana is an excellent film, and its greatest strength as a movie is its deviation from the traditional Princess Formula. By centering the movie fully on Moana and her personal journey, the film is able to stand out as a memorable, unique, and empowering entry in Disney’s oeuvre.

Moana meets the ocean

Moana opens with the titular character, still a young toddler, forming a bond with the Ocean. Unbeknownst to her, this is the moment when she becomes the Chosen One. The film then segues into Where We Are, a song that establishes the status quo of Motunui, her island, as well as Moana’s role in how it operates. The audience watches Moana grow up during that song, and they learn that she shoulders the great burden of being the future leader of her society, but she yearns for adventure instead. Moana is torn between her duties to her people and her passion for exploration, which she later expresses soulfully in How Far I’ll Go, known colloquially amongst seasoned Disney fans as her “I want” song. The “I want” song, to quote songwriting legend Howard Ashman, is when “the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. The audience falls in love with her and roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.” Shortly after singing about her desires, Moana learns three key things that propel both the plot of the movie and her personal arc forward: her people used to be explorers who sailed all over the ocean, her island is slowly dying, and she is the only one who can save the world. Knowing that the answer lies beyond the reef, Moana sets off on her adventure, like so many princesses before her.

It is the nature of Moana’s adventure that makes this movie so memorable. She meets a male character named Maui about forty minutes into the film, and their dynamic carries the rest of the movie forward with aplomb, but there is no romantic relationship between the two of them. In fact, Moana is the first Disney Princess movie to not involve any romance at all. Instead, Moana takes charge of her own character arc. This gives her a sense of agency that none of her princess counterparts have ever truly had. Moana’s story is about her discovering who she is, and how she can channel her personal dreams into who she needs to be for her people. There is also not a major Disney Villain in Moana. There are minor conflicts that run through the middle of the movie, but they do not detract from Moana reaching her goal, and are out of the movie just as soon as they enter. When Moana is at her lowest, she has a life changing moment with the spirit of her grandmother, the woman who encouraged her to embark on this journey way back in the beginning of the movie, instead of with Maui or a male love interest. Her grandmother forces Moana to reexamine herself, when she remembers that “the call isn’t out there, it’s inside me.” This reinvigorates Moana and gives her a renewed sense of purpose. 

Moana and Te Ka

The final confrontation between Moana and Te Ka, the destructive lava demon who is causing the slow death of her island, is not a traditional Disney Villain sequence. Instead, it is a tender moment when Moana, fully confident and assured of who she is, realizes that Te Ka is Te Fiti, the benevolent island goddess she has been trying to save the whole time. Moana proudly walks up the mountain to meet Te Ka, and gives her a hug. The moment is tender and emotionally charged, a far cry from the endings for evil characters like Jafar in Aladdin or Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Moana ends with Moana sailing across the oceans with her people in tow, singing the reprise of the song We Know The Way. Her people are now the wayfinders and explorers they were always meant to be. Moana is proud of her future duties as chief of Motunui, and she knows how to tackle the responsibilities on her own terms. The final shot of the film is Moana standing tall on the bow of the largest sailboat in her society’s fleet. The camera zooms in so the audience can see her proud stance and big smile. It is a well earned sequence, showcasing the conclusion of Moana’s personal journey towards self actualization and self confidence. 

Moana is an iconic, empowering, and memorable film because of the refreshing character traits and story writing for its female lead. By deviating from its traditional Princess Formula, Disney was able to bring a new type of story to the big screen. Many people who had become more critical of the studio’s releases felt a renewed faith in the boundaries Disney could push with their storytelling. Moana was met with critical and financial success, proof that the direction in which they chose to take Moana was the right one. Watching a female character undergo a life changing journey on her own terms was a balm of relief when it was released in November 2016, and it holds up incredibly well to this day.

Moana at the end of the film

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