Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for Disney. With a history that dates back almost 100 years and an iconic catalog of films that many of us were practically raised on, every time the company releases a new film, the stakes are almost uncomfortably high. Over the past few years, Disney has never ceased to impress, with smash hits like Frozen and Zootopia receiving critical acclaim and winning a place in the hearts of children and adults alike.
Moana, the first ever Disney film to feature a Polynesian heroine, has been surrounded by a lot of hype. On one hand you have those who are excited to see Polynesian culture on the big screen, more than ready for a Polynesian Disney princess to emerge. On the other hand you have those who worry that this kind of film cannot be made without some serious cultural appropriation blunders along the way and worry that Moana will simply be the latest installment in the continued commodification of indigenous culture.
Politics aside, watching herds of young excited children walk into the New Zealand premiere of Moana last night, many of these chlildren Polynesian themselves, I couldn’t help thinking that Moana as a Disney film is well overdue.
The film is based around the legend of the Polynesian demigod Maui, well known in Maori mythology for fishing up the North Island of New Zealand. The story is set with a prologue that explains the legend of Maui, a trickster who steals the goddess’s fertility-giving heart-stone, only to lose his magical fish hook that acts as the source of his power. Without her heart, the goddess does not have the power to nourish the lush Polynesian islands and slowly but surely, the natural resources of the islands begin diminish.
When teenage Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) sees her lush Hawaiian island home going into ecological meltdown, she learns that it is her duty as the future leader of her people to go on a quest to restore the heart of the goddess and in turn, the ecosystem. In doing so, Moana goes against the wishes of her father (voiced by Temuera Morrison) and returns to the roots of her people as a voyager of the ocean. Succeeding at tracking down the demigod early on in the film, Moana and a hilariously egocentric Maui (voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) embark on a mission to save the Pacific.
Meeting an eccentric singing crab (voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) along the way and joined by a strangely hilarious chicken, the adventure is as colourful as it is emotionally charged and layered. Ultimately, Moana emerges as the story of a young woman who finds herself in the history of her people, discovering purpose and fulfillment when she plucks up the courage to step away from everything she has ever known and embark on a jounery to save the islands.
Unlike many Disney princesses before her, Moana has no love interest and does not await a man to save her, instead leading the charge as the true heroine of the story as Maui takes on a secondary role. Despite her informal title as the new Disney princess, Moana even insists that she is not a princess, simply the daughter of the chief. With a refreshingly complex female lead, a clear environmental conscience and a sensitive yet dynamic portrayal of Polynesian culture, Moana ticks all of the boxes.
Films like Moana give me hope that in a world that is saturated with images of one certain type of gendered, racially homogenous woman, maybe, just maybe, our children will start to understand that there is more to the world than Barbie would let them believe.