When I teach my Disney princess course, one of the things we look at is the historical context for each film. Without going into detail here (I’ll be offering the course in Fall ’17, so come find out then!), suffice it to say that each of these films is a reflection of its moment in time. Much has been made of the fact that Disney’s latest offering, Moana, is a different kind of princess movie, and having seen it over Thanksgiving with my seven-year-old daughter, I would agree. I could list many ways in which it breaks the mold here, but I’ll save that for 2017. Rather, I’ll focus on one way in which it does this: rather than being reflective of what its historical moment is, it is aspirational about what its historical moment might be.
When the writers, animators and composers (bless you, Lin-Manuel Miranda!) were creating this film, released November 23, 2016, they could not have imagined our nation would be waking up to the reality of a Trump election a mere two weeks earlier. While no one needs reminding of the ugliness of the campaign he ran, for me, and I suspect for many, there are three elements of it that stand out in particular: his xenophobic rhetoric, aimed specifically at Mexican and Muslim immigrants but really targeting anyone not of European ancestry; his misogyny, threatening to attack female bodies both through the law and with his very own (tiny) hands; and perhaps less obviously but no less dangerously, his imperiling of the Earth itself, with his denial of climate change, threats to withdraw from the Paris accord, and promises to reinvigorate America’s fossil fuel industries by doing away with government-imposed regulations. This is, sadly, the reality we have to look forward to in 2017. But Moana offers a different vision, one that stands beautifully, and aspirationally, for a different kind of future.
First, Moana is not a European fairy tale. Rather, it is about a culture literally from the other side of the world, a celebration of the people and traditions of the Pacific islands. And it’s not just a shameful act of cultural appropriation (although I can already see the tie-in with the newly renovated Polynesian Village resort, but I’ll let that go for the moment)—what Disney got right here is that it actually consulted with and involved Pacific islanders in every aspect of the film’s production, which may be why Moana doesn’t ring hollow like some of Disney’s other attempts at telling the story of non-white princesses. But beyond immersing us completely and engagingly in a totally non-European culture, it is also a film that embraces the very act of immigration. When Moana, the titular character and sea-faring heroine of the film, discovers that her people have not always inhabited their little island, it is revelatory, liberating—they were once voyagers, people who were unafraid to take to their boats to look for a better life. While the idea of dark-skinned people in boats looking for a better life clearly terrifies some people, in Moana, it is a cause for rejoicing.
Perhaps the aspect of Moana that has garnered the most attention is its utter lack of a prince—not so much as a passing reference to one–and surely, in this way it is radically different from its predecessors. But Moana is a “female” film in more profound ways than this. Not only does Moana have a living mother, which sets her apart from most Disney princesses right off the bat, but she also has a grandmother, the village “crazy lady” who, like so many women who have been labeled crazy, is really a repository of cultural wisdom with a different account to share of her people’s history than the party line offered by men, in this case, her son, the tribe’s leader. It is she who sets Moana on her journey, she who is there to reassure her granddaughter at its darkest moment. And unlike the princesses before her, with the notable exception of Elsa (who I like to think is so popular with little girls not just because of her magic but because, as my daughter is always quick to remind me, “she’s a queen, not a princess!”), at the end of the film, Moana gets to rule in her own right, not just through inheritance, but because she’s earned it. I’m not going to lie— when Moana finally places that perfect, pink, gynic shell atop the phallic tower of grey stones, representing that she has taken over leadership of her people, I burst into hysterical tears—as much as anything else, it was a catharsis for all the pent up anger, frustration and fear from this election season, a perfect cinematic wish-fulfillment fantasy, and a grieving for the election that might have been.
If Moana is different from other Disney princess films in not having a prince, it is also different in not having a clear-cut villain (unless you want to count a bunch of freakishly cute sociopathic coconuts and a very glittery crab). I could go on all day about the gender dynamics of Disney’s traditional wicked stepmother, who may or may not also be a powerful sorceress, as well as variations on the theme of the person who should be looking out for you actually being your worst enemy (Prince Hans, anyone?), but I’m going to save that for Fall 2017. When Disney made the live-action Maleficent, it was tapping into a venerable tradition (Grendel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Wicked), of retelling a story from the villain’s perspective to show how she, or he, became the monster we all know and hate. Moana renders this kind of prequel unnecessary, as the story of how the film’s perceived villain is actually its greatest victim is an essential part of the narrative. We learn that Moana is chosen by the sea to return the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess, which had been stolen by the demi-god Maui and is now the reason that crops are failing and fish are disappearing. When she sets sail (against her father’s wishes, but with her grandmother’s blessing) and enlists Maui’s grudging assistance in this task, he tells her he took it so that he could give humans all that they wanted. In the film’s climactic moment, Moana must find a way to navigate around the ugly, angry volcanic enemy Te Ka to complete her mission. At first, this moment seems familiar from epics past, like some combination of Scylla and Charybdis and Sauron, and when Moana successfully sails past, we are conditioned to sense that victory is at hand. But we are perhaps as surprised as she is, perhaps more so, to discover that Te Fiti is gone…no, not gone; that the thing she seeks is one and the same as the monster trying to keep her from it, that deprived of its heart, Te Fiti turned into the ugly and dangerous Te Ka. What happens next is perhaps more surprising, esp. in our current political climate—Moana recognizes what so many do not, that the trick to peace is not defeating your enemy but understanding it. She turns to face Te Ka, says “I know your name,” and returns what rightfully belongs to it. Instantly, the “monster” transforms to its true self—Te Fiti, a benevolent mother goddess, a Pacific Eden island that is the source of all life. Balance is restored, and the lie that’s it is OK to rip what we want from the Earth is exposed for what it is: the real cause of what threatens our soil, water and air, as well as the human communities that rely on them.
It’s telling that it is a young, brown-skinned girl who is brave enough to uncover this truth in the film. Unfortunately, in 2017, we face the real danger of watching old, white men take what they believe they’re entitled to, leaving us all in peril. And this highlights one last aspect of this election which I’ve not yet addressed but which is central to this film, and that, of course, is youth. As we now know, the 18-25 demographic overwhelmingly rejected the dark, inward-looking vision of our current president elect. And of course, Moana is aimed at an even younger demographic. This is their film, and it could not come at a more crucial moment. Although I rarely say this about a Disney princess, in this case I hope our daughters, and our sons, do learn from Moana’s example. We still have things to aspire to…