“Moana” Isn’t The Best Disney Movie I’ve Seen, But It Is The Most Inspiring One

Posted by Richa Gupta in Culture-Vulture
December 20, 2016

Although “Moana” (2016 film) was released several weeks ago, I somehow never found time to ruminate about what I imbibed from it. On watching the movie wide-eyed in the theatre, definite features of the movie immediately stood out to me: such as Moana’s ‘normal-sized’ body proportions (a stark contrast to the impossible waists of most Disney princesses), the catchy soundtrack, and Moana’s charming, eccentric demeanour. The diversity of the movie was refreshing (Moana revolves around Polynesian society and mythology), as was its lack of a gratuitous romantic subplot (in that respect, the movie somewhat reminded me of Pixar’s “Brave”). I also loved Moana’s quirky grandmother, as well as how strongly Moana handles her death.

“Moana” has a great, if not stunning, plotline: Moana is the daughter of the chief of Island Motunui, and is constantly ordered by her overprotective father to not cross the reef that encircles their island. However, when a deathly darkness strikes her island, Moana embarks on a valiant journey to find the demigod Maui, so that he can return the stolen heart of Te Fiti and bring prosperity and health back to Motunui. That said, Moana leaves her island with another purpose in mind: to find out who she really is, and what she is meant to be. Peppered with abandonment, failure, loss, and heroism, “Moana” is a film that features complex and multi-dimensional characters and motives. It’s not the best Disney movie I’ve ever watched, but it’s certainly one of the most inspiring ones.

I suppose I like “Moana” so much because of its proud defiance of conventional Disney stereotypes. The first is the protagonist’s outward appearance, which I mentioned previously: Moana actually looks like a youthful, healthy girl—with a body that won’t lead to more body image issues among women and girls. As said by co-director John Musker to Buzzfeed in July 2016, “[…] we wanted her to be an action hero, capable of action.” This is definitely a welcome change from the bodies of princesses like Elsa, Jasmine, and the many others, whose bodies have been deemed “uncommonly perfect and anatomically unattainable”. Moana’s figure is fit, athletic, and not deprived of the muscles and strength all our bodies need to sustain themselves. And given Moana’s beauty and charm, this observation can be a large source of empowerment to young, female viewers—many of whom have probably inhaled the belief that the ‘ideal’ female body should be impossibly slim and fragile.

And, well, Moana’s character is wonderfully flawed. She fails and nearly drowns the first time she ventures beyond the reef, she is unsure of her decisions and sailing abilities on numerous occasions, and altogether lacks the poise we associate with Disney princesses. She is not the epitome of confidence, or elegance, or composure—and that’s perfectly all right.

Moana isn’t the first Disney princess movie to teach its audience that women don’t need a man to whisk them to their happy ending. Several other movies have done this as well, such as “Brave”, “Frozen”, and “Mulan”. That said, in all these movies, there are the overarching themes of marriage and courtship; for instance, Merida in Brave runs away after her mother tells her that she must entertain suitors for her betrothal—an adventure that leads her on a remarkable journey. However, as published by Screen Rant, “though Moana is groomed by her […] mother and father to take over as the village chief one day, marriage is not mentioned—not even to establish Moana needn’t be married to be chief.” So, “Moana” defeats the typical Disney movie dynamic by not using romance or courtship as a theme that carries the plot forward.

Moana is motivated to leave her island due to the darkness that starts to pervade it, and succeeds in her mission by virtue of her pluck, tenacity, and occasional help from the demigod Maui. Her incentives are anything but romantic, and the movie centers on her journey to discover herself as an individual—as opposed to an element in a traditional societal structure. Rather than harbouring a connection with another human being, Moana nurtures a lifelong relationship with the sea.

Image Credit: Collider

However, even though “Moana” has successfully extricated itself from the established culture of Disney princess movies, it has been criticised for its depiction of Polynesian demigod Maui as obese. Furthermore, several people, such as Jenny Salesa (a New Zealand MP), said that this portrayal of Maui was a “negative stereotype”.

That said, “Moana” is a movie that I won’t forget in a hurry. It was heart-warming, creative, and effectively added to the diversity of Disney’s list of princesses. I find Moana a role model in so many different ways—whether it’s her courage, or the fact that she still tries to restore the heart of Te Fiti even when her companion abandons her, or her willingness to risk her life to find out who she truly is.