Set in ancient Polynesia, Disney’s Moana tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who goes on a sea voyage to save her people. Smart, funny, and full of emotion, this may be one of the greatest Disney films released, not just in recent years, but ever. The old Disney standbys are there from the animal companion to the wise grandmother to the tension between an adventurous girl and her strict father. But somehow it all feels new.
Early details about the movie made much of the fact that this Disney princess does not have a love interest. However, focusing on what the film does not include seems potentially counterproductive to me. The storyline works the way it is. Moana is on a mission to save her people. She doesn’t need a romance and adding one would have felt extraneous. Where would Moana pick up a man, anyway? Would the creators have needed to add a subplot where she washes ashore on an island and finds one, in between her doing her saving the world stuff? That would have surely felt forced.
The film is confident enough that it largely does not need to reference other Disney princess films (though it does land at least one jab at the tropes) to establish itself as doing something different. And this is the way it should be. I don’t want to be comparing every minute of the story to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and wondering if Moana did it better or is feminist enough or if it’s somehow significant that a heroine is seen saving the world without a romantic interest. At least not while I’m watching it–dissection can come later. Moana‘s strength lies in the fact that it just assumes its heroine’s agency as a matter of course, and does not need to defend it or or use itself as a means of defending Disney’s record of princesses and agency in general. Yes, the film says, women are smart and strong and funny and they can save the world. Why would you assume anything else?
The film gets questions about Moana’s abilities out of the way by just assuming she has them, so we can focus on everything else. The film is filled with an endearing cast of characters, has gorgeous visuals, has perfect comedic timing, and depicts some breathtaking action scenes. And, of course, there’s the music! You’ll leave the theatre wanting to learn all the songs, which are integrated seamlessly into the film, but also work well on their own. Even when I considered that I might want to critique something in the film, such as the villain’s song (which seems stylistically out of keeping with the rest of the music), I just couldn’t. I love the film too much. It pulls on your heartstrings in all the right places.
And the heroine’s anthem? Her final recognition of who she is? It’s stunning and really the centerpiece of the film. Moana the character ends her character arc by, again, just assuming that she is strong and capable and knowledgeable. She declares that she has performed amazingly throughout her journey. She owns her skills. I have done this, she says. To hear a female on screen take credit for her work and be celebrated for it, rather than being labelled aggressive or out of place, is truly an inspirational moment.
So go see Moana! You won’t regret it!