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Posted July 2, 2017 by

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Disney Got It Right With ‘Moana’

What does it take to qualify as a Disney princess?

There are a few complex genre and character specifics and a lot of deceptive simplicity.

Devoted Disney fans know it has a lot to do with virtue, kindness, often innocence, beauty and the hardships of overcoming life’s struggles. Being a princess, one might observe, is a set of consequent states and qualities, which are exhibited in the appropriate order.

Alas, it is much simpler. As an intimidatingly muscular, tattooed, skirt-wearing dude rightly put it: ‘If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you are a princess.’ That’s it. Maui, out.

The 2016 movie ‘Moana,’ featuring themes from Polynesian culture, is a worthy addition to Disney’s tradition of quality animated cinema and exceptional storytelling. But in many ways, there is nothing traditional about it. In fact, it is part of ‘the evolution’ of Disney.

Disney has a long history in animation. It represents a relationship of loyalty, anticipation and devotion between the product and the viewer, which is at the heart of Disney’s merchandise.

‘The evolution’ that movies like ‘Moana’ and ‘Frozen’ have paved the path for is attempting to shift traditional concepts and move forward from established genre specifics. ‘Moana’ in particular demonstrated a notable contrast in the focus and origin of the storyline and the overall ideological concepts.

The issue of cultural diversity has always resounded within the film industry as an underlying problem. For sectors such as animation it can be the source of interesting and unexplored themes, while popularising and increasing the knowledge of what is often widely unknown cultural richness. As the movie relies heavily on Polynesian mythology for its storyline and character development, the feelings towards the success of the cultural incorporation have been predictably ambivalent.

Accusations of cultural commercialisation were fast to follow. The nature of the exposure was deemed limited and filtered and although the level of authenticity managed to meet the satisfactory scale, there is still much to be required. ‘Moana’ in all her exotic and enchanted beauty offered a bewitching if rather selective glimpse into the customs and culture of the distant Pacific.

Disney ‘Moana’

It is a tale as old as time: a man and a woman find great love against all odds and hold on to it until everything miraculously falls into place. From ‘Cinderella’ to ‘Frozen’ romantic love has played a key if not central part in the narrative. But love is and has always been a multidimensional concept.

In ‘Moana,’ similarly to ‘Mulan’ and ‘Frozen,’ love is depicted in its diverse manifestations. Mulan’s respect and devotion to her family empowers her to embark on her extraordinary adventure. That is love. While Elsa’s deliberate isolation was enforced by a sincere desire to protect her kingdom and her sister, Anna never gave up on her sister and sacrificed herself for her. That is love. Moana, in all her youth and inexperience, believed firmly in the legacy of her ancestors, under the guidance and strength of her family and her spirit. That is love. And love derives from many things.

In recognising the diverse face and quality of love as an empowering force, Disney has demonstrated particular sensitivity towards what the genre can take and how it can work to the narrative’s advantage.

When you think of a Disney narrative, the villain is hugely important. They are usually and obviously bad and want to restrain the hero or heroine or harm something precious to him or her. Although their motivation might vary, their identity is usually portrayed as singular and lacking a certain depth of character.

Again, with the release of recent movies, it would seem as though Disney has recognised this as a potential area for development. ‘Moana’ introduces the identity of the villains, who start off as deceptively singular characters, as a complex occurrence, which requires the viewer to pay closer attention. Interestingly, the greatest ‘bad’ in the movie turns out to be the greatest ‘good,’ proving again a crucial point about character creation.

Villains in a story deserve to be known about in greater detail, as often the cause of their behaviour is left in the shadows. Sometimes being bad starts by wanting to be good.


If there is an absolutely emblematic feature of a Disney princess movie, it is the act of or wait for a rescue. The concept of saving is a well-established one within the industry as an opportunity for a compelling storyline.

What differs significantly in this scenario is the harnessed desire and determination to save one’s self singlehandedly. That, of course, predisposes to a more complex and developed identity of the character, who possesses the strength to walk the path to a rescue alone. Moana might have a demigod by her side, but it is her fighting spirit and fearless curiosity that drive the narrative forward.

She is the new kind of heroine: a way-finder, a voyager, a daughter and a true friend. Dress or no dress, and with a hilariously backward chicken on board, she sails to her destiny.

She knows the way because she is the one setting the qualifications. As we all should be.


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Written by:

Asya Gadzheva
Digital Portfolio
Freelance Contributor

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