The movie year 2016 has been a disappointing one for female characters in every genre but one — the animated feature. The title of Pixar’s Finding Dory might suggest that the blue tang with short-term memory loss we got to know in Finding Nemo would plan an essentially passive role, to be found and rescued by others. Wrong. Dory is an active female lead who overcomes her limitations to find her parents and, along the way, herself, all the while having a positive effect on everyone with whom she comes into contact. Disney’s Zootopia gives us the ambitious, optimistic, and splendidly flawed rabbit cop Judy Hopps, who has the guts not only to change her world but to own up to her own need to change. Even animated movies with male protagonists, Kung Fu Panda 3 and Kubo and the Two Strings, manage to give important female supporting characters, Tigress and Monkey, indisputable Moments of Awesome. Now the year finishes up with Disney’s Moana, the company’s latest entry in its ongoing princess sweepstakes (though Moana herself spurns the title “princess”). And guess what? It’s great, too, although I can’t quite decide whether this one or Zootopia is my favorite female-led animated film of the year.
Almost from the moment Moana was released — even before then, really — comparisons to Disney’s previous princess film, 2013’s massive hit Frozen, started to crop up. Plenty of commentators have praised Frozen as a feminist triumph, with its focus on the problematic but still loving relationship between two sisters, as well as its depiction of a young woman rising to queenship who must find a way to master her powers or else be mastered by them. Along with so many others, I like Frozen. I love musicals, and while I may have heard “Let It Go” one too many times, I still enjoy the other songs, particularly the stirring men’s-chorus opening and snowman Olaf’s “I Want” song, “In Summer.” The character of Elsa is indeed a fascinating heroine, at times more of an anti-heroine, the like of which Disney had not really given us before. Had the movie been more clearly her story, I might call it one of my favorites. But it has one disappointing element that (for me) keeps it from being the feminist triumph it wants to be: Elsa’s sister Anna, the real central character.
While in Elsa Disney gives us something fairly new, Anna feels like a throwback to the princesses of an earlier era. That she dreams of finding true love and looks to marriage as a solution to her problems isn’t my main sticking point, since the plot critiques this and has her learn better. No, my issue is that she represents a backward step in a way the movie never bothers to correct. Sometime in the late ’80s, Disney’s artists and writers decided it was a good idea to give the female leads interests. The little mermaid, Ariel, was fascinated by the surface world well before she set eyes on her handsome human prince. Belle of Beauty and the Beast was a voracious reader. More recently we saw the aspiring restauranteur Tiana of The Princess and the Frog, and after her the artist Rapunzel (she of the thousand hobbies) of Tangled. But the creators of Anna in Frozen seem to have forgotten all that. What is Anna interested in? What are her hobbies? Surely in all the time she has spent secluded in the castle with nobody to talk to, she must have found something to do. But we never learn what. Tiana is a chef, Rapunzel is an artist, and Anna is … a princess. To be fair, she shows herself to be brave and resourceful on her quest to save her sister, but she never manages to find a particular skill, talent, or passion that might give her some purpose, some way of being more than just Elsa’s sister and (we may presume) Klaus’s bride. In the end, as at the beginning, she has nothing of her own.
This is where Moana outshines it. As if having picked up on most viewers’ finding Elsa much more interesting than Anna, Disney chooses to make its female protagonist a young woman being groomed for leadership. Moana, however, is no anti-heroine; though she makes mistakes, she is clearly a heroine throughout. There is no figure analogous to the “completely ordinary, but in a good way” Anna; instead, we see Moana bond with her wise, funny grandmother, the community’s lore-keeper, who turns out to be quite the badass in her own right. In the film’s first moments, Moana’s pull toward the ocean and her longing to see the world beyond the reef, and her chieftain father’s disapproval of such, have some strong echoes of Ariel’s situation in The Little Mermaid. But in the end, the movie isn’t about a choice between duty and desire. Moana’s journey begins where desire and duty mesh. She has to go beyond the reef in order to become the leader she is meant to be. This is a heroine with purpose.
So, what else do I appreciate about Moana?
Gender is no object. The oft-repeated conflict of “You can’t/shouldn’t do/be [fill in the blank] because you’re a girl/woman,” which a multitude of writers continue to trot out every time they tell a story with a female protagonist, is missing from this film. Moana will succeed her father as chieftain, and no one questions this. We see her preparing for this responsibility, so that we’re shown, not just told, that she’ll be good at it, but we’re never given the sense that she must prove herself because of her gender. Maui the demigod doesn’t take her seriously at first, but that’s because she’s mortal, not because she’s female. Moana is given other battles to fight than the familiar gender struggle, and by God, that’s refreshing.
Marriage is no object, either. Plenty of reviewers have noted that Moana’s story does not end in marriage, and I agree that this is a good thing. What makes it even better is that unlike other animated heroines, from Pocahontas to Aladdin‘s Jasmine to Brave‘s Merida, Moana never has to put up with one parent or the other pressuring her to marry. Marriage isn’t disparaged or down-rated; it simply never comes up, and so Moana is spared yet another too-familiar conflict.
The male lead is interesting, too. Ever notice how painfully bland most of the princes are in traditional Disney princess movies? Here, too, matters have improved significantly in recent years, with Naveen of The Princess and the Frog and Flynn of Tangled given personalities, flaws, and humor. The demigod Maui of Moana takes this up to eleven. For most of the film, he’s anything but a hero; he’s a trickster who would like nothing better than to ditch the pesky human who keeps insisting he think and act for the good of others besides himself. But he grows, and by the end we’re rooting for him (though thankfully — Spoiler Alert — he doesn’t steal Moana’s thunder by saving the day). The development of his relationship with Moana is all the more intriguing because it carries not the slightest hint of romance. This is a story of a friendship where both characters come to appreciate each other and end up bringing out the best in each other.
The songs are great! “How Far I’ll Go” may become the over-played second coming of Frozen‘s “Let It Go,” but in the contest of the movie it’s stirring. Even better is Maui’s signature song, “You’re Welcome,” which is so catchy that poor Moana gets caught up in it and lets herself be tricked. The songs do what all the best songs in musicals do: they move the plot along and reveal vital aspects of character. The more I hear of songsmith Lin-Manuel Miranda and his work, the more I’m a fan. I have a “Things I Love about Hamilton” post coming soon. Wait for it.
Diversity is a good thing. I can only hope the success of this film leads to our seeing more stories about nonwhite (preferably female) animated protagonists and the worlds they inhabit.
And finally I must mention the one clear thing Moana has in common with Frozen. It stands as proof that animated features with female leads can be huge hits at the box office.