There are a lot of wonderful things in Disney’s new animated film Moana: The lively animation, the loving depiction of Pacific Islands culture, the clever and catchy songs. But one of the most exciting things about Moana is what it doesn’t have: a love interest for its title character. For a Disney princess movie, this is revolutionary.
True, the character of Moana is not technically a princess. She’s the daughter of a chief from the fictional island of Motunui, and both the filmmakers and Disney have stated that the princess label does not apply. However, there’s a clear lineage here from previous Disney heroines, and the movie plays openly with that idea. (“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” the character Maui tells Moana.) Like the princesses that preceded her, Moana has dreams, the aforementioned sidekicks, and plenty of obstacles to overcome on her way to a happy ending. Unlike them, her happily-ever-after isn’t tied to romance.
Think about what a dramatic departure this is. Ever since Snow White warbled “Someday My Prince Will Come,” love has been at the crux of every Disney princess’s journey. Think of the final shots of Snow White (the happy couple riding away on a white horse), Sleeping Beauty (the happy couple dancing in the castle), and Cinderella (the happy couple’s wedding.) Beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, the princesses become more proactive about pursuing their own dreams — Belle wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere”; Mulan wants to find out “who I am inside”; Tangled’s Rapunzel wonders “When will my life begin?” But even then, love inevitably finds them. The one exception in the official princess pantheon is Brave’s Merida, whose plot involves rejecting three suitors picked by her parents. Frozen also subverts this trope to some extent; Elsa doesn’t have a handsome prince and Anna ends up rejecting hers, though it’s pretty clear she’ll end up with kind-hearted Kristoff.
But Moana is the first Disney princess for whom romance simply never comes up. In the film, Moana must weigh the honor and responsibility of being her island’s new chief against her desire to explore the surrounding seas. It would have been easy for Disney to sneak in a mention of future marriage or to highlight a boy from the village who could serve as a potential love interest for the inevitable straight-to-DVD sequels … but it doesn’t. Part of this is justified by Moana’s age; the movie never pinpoints a number, but it’s clear from the character design and casting (voice actress Auli’i Cravalho was 14 years old during production) that this is a slightly younger heroine than those of past Disney films. And there’s definitely no sexual chemistry (thank demigod) between Moana and her wisecracking travel companion, Maui, voiced by 44-year-old Dwayne Johnson.
According to the directors, Moana was always intended to be a princess movie without a prince. “Right from the start, there never was a love story in this movie,” co-director Ron Clements told Yahoo Movies at a press event earlier this month. “We saw this as a True Grit kind of story about a young girl … on a quest to save her world. It’s really a hero’s journey.”
Co-director John Musker added that Disney executives never objected to this decision. Maybe that’s because they realized that their young audience is changing. A marketing study by Hasbro, which took over the Disney princess toy line from Mattel last year, found that girls thought of their favorite princesses as superheroes, placing a high value on their skills and abilities. “Sometimes they want a prince — sometimes there is no need for a prince,” a Hasbro exec told Bloomberg. In other words, princes haven’t gone away; they just don’t need to be front-and-center in every story. And too often in Disney animated films, that’s exactly where the prince ends up, saving the helpless heroine at her greatest moment of peril. No wonder girls are ready for a Disney princess who can save herself.
By eliminating a love interest, Moana solves some other problems as well. Last year, a widely publicized study by two linguists discovered that in Disney princess films since 1989, with the sole exception of Pixar’s Brave, women get significantly less speaking time than men. For example, female characters get just 29 percent of the total dialogue in Beauty and the Beast. In Frozen, women speak just 41 percent of the time, despite the film having two female leads. Moana seems determined to improve that ratio. By eliminating a romantic angle, the film makes space for a different, more female-centric story, about the relationship between Moana and her grandmother. (Moana also has a living mother — a rarity in Disney animated films — and an animal companion, the rooster Heihei, who simply makes noises instead of mansplaining her adventures).
Another happy side effect of the decision is that the male lead actually gets a better storyline. The love interests in recent Disney princess films have often had an obnoxious sameness to their personalities: street-smart, arrogant, and flirtatious, men like Prince Naveen, Kristoff, and Flynn Rider seem like alumni of the same fairy-tale fraternity. (Prince Eric and Aladdin definitely went to their parties.) While Moana’s hulking Polynesian demigod, Maui, shares some of these qualities, with the pressure to seduce the princess removed, he becomes a much richer character: a man struggling with the loss of his powers who must learn to redefine himself as a less flashy kind of hero. It’s a much deeper journey than the usual boy-meets-girl arc that we’ve come to expect for the male leads in these films.
Disney hasn’t given up on love stories — it’s just acknowledging that there are other kinds of stories worth telling. In nearly 80 years of Disney animated films, Moana is the first princess who gets to go on a “hero’s journey” without the faint sound of wedding bells chiming in the distance. With this film, Disney is giving young girls an entirely new kind of fairy tale — one that acknowledges that falling in love is just one of life’s many adventures.
Meet the voice of Moana: