Finally, With Moana, Disney Gives Us A Diverse, Feminist Story

Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
I'm a 29-year-old grown-up (well, at least I pretend to be one on weekdays) living in New York. So on the surface, I wouldn't seem to have much in common with a preteen who grew up on an island as the daughter of a Polynesian chief. And yet, somehow, while watching the new Disney animated film Moana, for the first time since the debut of the book-loving Belle in Beauty And The Beast (my fourth birthday was even BATB-themed!), I truly saw myself in a Disney character. And I'm willing to bet many of you readers might see yourselves in her, too.

Moana is struggling to balance the expectations of her family (to stay on her island as a future chief) with what she truly wants (to be an explorer out on the open sea). When she's chosen by the spirit of the ocean to embark on a quest to save her island's people, she develops a major case of impostor syndrome, questioning why she was chosen and if she's good enough to take on the job.

Doubting our abilities, an insatiable thirst to see the world, and the internal battle between what we should do versus what we want to do? For many women, these are all real-life moments. Except this particular story is told with a little help from the myths of Polynesian and Pacific Islander culture, paired with beautiful animation that illuminates the vibrancy of the South Seas, with sparkling turquoise water and lush green landscapes.

Moana is, indeed, our first-ever Disney protagonist without a romantic partner.

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Perhaps my favorite element, though, was that as Hawaiian high schooler Auli'i Cravalho, who voices Moana, hinted to us back in September, Moana's partner in crime — Maui, a demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson who helps her along her journey — is just that: a partner in crime. Not a love interest. Moana is, indeed, our first-ever Disney protagonist without a romantic partner. (Kind of crazy that it's taken this long, no?) And despite his burly size, Maui isn't even the big, strong man who swoops in to save the day. In fact, his story is actually built up to make him seem like he'll be the hero, but it's Moana who ends up being the hero and teaching him a thing or two — a fact that I quite literally cheered about at the movie's uplifting end.

Disney has been careful not to call Moana a princess; my guess is because it's moving away from insinuating that every strong female character has to be the daughter of an almighty powerful king (though Moana's father is a chief), or destined to marry a handsome prince. But in a funny nod to Disney's semantics, when Maui calls Moana a princess, she indignantly tells him she isn't one. Maui points out that she's the daughter of a chief, wearing a dress, with an animal sidekick — which makes her a princess. Still, Moana indignantly fights the title, preferring to just call herself...Moana.

When the credits rolled, I had a smile on my face. Moana is simply enjoyable, up there among some of the best Disney movies thus far, in my opinion — and definitely one of the most progressive. And a warning for you readers: You will most definitely have the Lin Manuel Miranda-created soundtrack stuck in your head for a good month.

"How Far I'll Go," the soaring motivational anthem that Moana busts into after the first quarter of the film, definitely has "Let It Go"-level potential, which I realized when I found myself swaying back and forth in my seat with a cheesy grin. And just like Frozen's Idina Menzel version of "Let It Go," there's also a pop-radio-friendly version with vocals by Alessia Cara. (Maui also has a ridiculously catchy tune called "Thank You" that I envision kids everywhere annoying their parents with for years to come.)

So regardless of whether you want to bring a child with you, are psyched to see Disney's first true feminist animated film, or just need a carefree break from the weight of the world, check out Moana, in theaters November 23. You can watch the trailer below.
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