Moana

If the Princess portion of Disney's 1989-1999 Renaissance period was about modernizing values and providing the new heroines with some sense of agency after the more passive protagonists of the previous generation, then the current decade's Princess pics have officially ushered in the animation studio's postmodern era.

Tangled transformed Rapunzel into an action hero and her love interest was an enemy of the kingdom to which the princess unknowingly belonged. The movie mainly got by on great songs and beaming charm, though, and was rudimentary revisionism compared to Frozen, which doubled as a subversive reconfiguring of the true love trope and a critical essay on past princesses' penchant for love at first sight. And now there's Moana, which bucks expectations and twists Disney trends again by excising the romantic component altogether. There's no love interest for the titular character, not even so much as a hint of a suitor.

This makes Moana the first Disney Princess movie to remove romance from the equation entirely. Nearly every past Princess narrative in the Disney canon has featured a love story at its very core, either as the driving force of the entire plot or as the triumphant resolution of some magical conflict. Frozen tweaked this by suggesting that the charming prince who is so easy to immediately fall for might actually be a selfish jerk, but it still gave Anna a man to love her in the end.

It’s a fair part of the formula in many ways (men and women fall in love all the time and movies are much better at enhancing fairytale-like romances than they are at diminishing them), but an entire movie that makes no reference to such a partnership seems like an essential step forward in the Disney Princess evolution. This is territory that Pixar’s Brave ventured into with chaotically coiffed heroine Merida, who might actually be the closest cousin of Moana (powerfully played by Auli’i Cravalho) in the Princess pantheon.

Merida’s story was all about rejecting the archaic concept of arranged marriage and clashing with her mother over the dispute, so she didn’t need a romantic partner, either, and the theme of the young rebelling against the tidy traditions of their elders also matches up with Moana’s arc.

In that sense, Merida feels like a stepping stone that has led here, where the very idea of settling down with a guy is never even broached. It’s completely off the table in Moana and that creates a sense of creative and personal freedom, an unshackling of conventional appeasement that veteran directors John Musker and Ron Clements quickly spin into an awesome adventure of empowerment.

Moana is interested in more than spicing up the familiar Disney formula, though, also adding a dash of meta commentary that arrives in the form of hilariously hulking demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson, his charm and comic timing effortlessly translated to animation), who incorrectly identifies Moana as a “princess” (she’s the Chieftain’s daughter instead), gripes about her need to break into song, and mocks the presence of an obligatory animal sidekick (it’s a braindead chicken in this case).

Maui’s treatment of Moana is great for pointing out the filmmakers’ awareness that a Disney heroine comes with a lot of baggage and a checklist of accessories, but he also occupies a rather unique role in the grand scheme of the story. He’s an ancient legendary hero actually viewed as a villain by Moana’s island people ever since he stole a special stone and inadvertently wreaked havoc on the seas a millennium ago.

Teaming the “princess” character with a tough guy whose personality initially clashes with hers has been a staple of the current Princess run. The love stories of Tangled and Frozen depend almost entirely on this approach, so Moana further separates itself from the pack by setting up a situation that can never result in romance. Maui has his predictably redemptive arc, but his relationship with Moana is never more than platonic and even his skills are shown to be less impactful than the heroine’s headstrong courage. Despite Maui’s shape-shifting abilities and super-strength, he finds himself regularly outdone by Moana in the action sequences.

All of these elements help make Moana one of the more startlingly moving titles in the Disney Princess canon as well as a trailblazer forging a new path for the princesses ahead. Of course, the bare bones of these ideas wouldn’t take such beautiful shape if it weren’t for Moana herself, who has such personality that she instantly carves out her own unique identity among her fellow protagonists in the Princess crowd. Rapunzel and Anna both had loads of lovable and slightly innocent charm as well, so Moana clearly and strongly represents the newly improved mould of Disney heroine.

Cravalho certainly deserves much of the credit beyond the vast writing team and the directors, imbuing her character with a voice that soars triumphantly and lends the animation an ocean of human depth capable of capturing the most subtle waves of emotion. It’s a vibrant vocal performance even further enhanced by the soaring notes and lyrics of her adventurous anthem “How Far I’ll Go.” This song in particular and its various reprises are the stuff Disney dreams are made of and the whole point of the song, that one must bravely forge ahead into the unknown or risk an atrophying of the spirit, feels like a fitting parallel to Disney’s current creative endeavours.

Johnson gets his own tune to sing in the form of the hilariously arrogant “You’re Welcome,” wherein Maui takes credit for creating everything from the sea to the sky and proudly assumes Moana is some sort of super-fan. It’s an infectious burst of comic mania that Johnson executes with natural flair.

All of this intrigue and excitement on the high seas is of course granted a visual magnificence by the animators that have once again pushed themselves to create new wonders. The water effects are truly stunning, probably the closest a computer has yet come to replicating the real thing, and the various locales of this Polynesian paradise are sumptuously inviting. There’s also a tender environmentalism message in here that feels more poignantly personal than preachy.

The Princess subset of the Disney catalog began the studio’s incredible run of animated features nearly 80 years ago, so it’s understandable that such a legacy is being treated with this level of care. But considering how easily they could just rest on their laurels and push a vaguer girl power message than the extremely self-aware one they’re actually committed to, the freeing approach to Moana feels like something of a creative coup. A “princess” who needs not a prince is quite the message for the mini masses. As Moana looks out at the great unknown in the movie’s final shot, she can take pride in knowing that while she’s the first to break this ground, she most certainly won’t be the last.

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