My priorities when I went home for Thanksgiving this year were a little skewed, as the release of Disney's newest princess movie, "Moana," was on the same day as I was getting home and therefore became the most important aspect of the break after seeing my dog. My sister and I have loved the Disney princesses since we were little, but this particular movie features the first princess that shared some of our looks, from our big hair to our big eyebrows, from my big lips to her big eyes, so the need to see her in action had trumped any need to prepare to see family for the holiday come the next morning.
The movie is amazing, as most reviews will tell you. The animation is beautiful and fills the length of the movie with extremely vivid color and realistic movement, especially in the hair and water. The music is full of energy and will definitely appeal to anyone who likes the music of "Hamilton" or "In The Heights" with Lin-Manuel Miranda composing, and it features languages from several of the Pacific Islands. The plot is fast-paced and exciting, constructed in a similar way to stories like "The Odyssey," with multiple villains appearing as obstacles rather than there being one main antagonist. A good portion of the movie may seem predictable, though, since it follows the tried and true pattern that Disney has been trying to perfect with every princess movie: a young woman dreams of being able to do more than life has offered her and, through a journey that tests her determination, compassion, and belief in herself, is able to achieve that dream. It's been seen time and time again, slowly evolving from Cinderella's dream of life outside of her stepmother's house to Ariel's wish for a life out of the water to Belle wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere.
However, there is something about Moana's story that feels undeniably different. She is the first Disney princess for whom romance is not even brought up and she is the first princess whose movie goes into the fact that there are actual duties that come with being a future ruler of the people, while movies that do touch on it, like "Frozen" and "Brave," deal more with the idea of being in the public eye. Perhaps most importantly, though, she is the first Disney princess who, through her own actions and choices, saves the world.
It was only recently that the Disney princesses were made to achieve their dreams through their own choices, without magic and without stumbling into a circumstance that offered them the opportunity. Cinderella had the fairy godmother and Ariel had Ursula to grant them their wishes, while Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas are forced into the Beast, Aladdin, and John Smith's worlds. It is only from Mulan moving forward that Disney princesses begin to set their sights on a goal and actually work to achieve it on their own. That idea is basically at the core of Tiana's character in "Princess and the Frog," believing that to find fairytales in the real world, "you've got to make them happen, it all depends on you," and since then every princess has had to work hard for her happily ever after.
And there's no denying Moana works for her goals. However, she spends the majority of the movie believing her story is determined by fate and that she is meant to share this journey with Maui, who will complete the mission himself. She is the "chosen one" of this story and, according to legend, is meant to sail the ocean as her ancestors did, find Maui, and journey with him so that he can restore the heart of Te Fiti. Throughout the movie, she repeats that the ocean has called her since she was little, specifically so she could start this journey and set destiny into motion so that she could act as a support to Maui's journey, in the same way many of the older Disney princess have acted as supports to the male heroes in defeating the antagonist.
The moment where this perception of her journey shifts, though, is the moment that defines her and separates her from every other Disney princess. The song, "I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)," appears just before the plot's climax, just as Moana realizes that she must either continue her journey alone or turn back. In a moment reminiscent of Mufasa's spirit telling Simba, "Remember who you are," Tala asks Moana, "Do you know who you are?" Moana wonders for a moment before repeating that the ocean and her ancestors have called her, before realizing that that may not be true. She realizes that she is the one who delivered them to Te Fiti, not the ocean or Maui, and that she has journeyed farther than any of her ancestors. The fact that she still feels that pull toward restoring the heart proves that she has been the driving force behind her journey. The movie emphasizes this especially in the fact that the ocean does not help her get the heart back after she's given it up, she does it herself. The ocean may have chosen her, but it was never calling her. Instead, her love for her island and determination to achieve her dream of exploring the world outside it have led her to deciding to take up the role of the hero in the legends by herself. She realizes that she is completely capable on her own and, though she is not completely alone in the moment she finally faces Te Ka, is able to save every land the ocean connects on her own through her intelligence and new-found confidence in the power of her choices and decisions.
Not only does Moana save the world in a way that is only possibly comparable to Mulan saving China, but Moana's story basically portrays the path Disney princess movies have taken over time, moving from princesses acting as supports in their journey to achieve dreams of another world to achieving them with the support of others, and, finally, to finding strength on their own. Hopefully, this model will continue with each upcoming Disney princess, because "Moana" is basically a culmination of the story Disney has been trying to tell with its princesses for years: a young woman dreams of being able to do more than life has offered her and, through a journey that tests her determination, compassion, and belief in herself, is able to achieve that dream on her own because of who she is and who she has become.