The first teaser trailer for Disney’s new animated musical Moana has been released online, and it’s a little short on… Moana. The film’s titular heroine is a Polynesian princess (voiced by native Hawaiian teenager Auli'i Cravalho, in her film debut) who journeys across the sea to find a legendary island, with the help of demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson). When the film opens in November, Moana will be the newest Disney princess and is expected to be absorbed into the multibillion-dollar Disney Princess franchise. So why is the trailer (below) all about Maui?
It’s not because Dwayne Johnson is the biggest-name star in the film, although that is true. It’s just the latest example of a very specific Disney marketing strategy, designed to broaden the appeal of its fairy-tale movies by making them appear less girl-centric. Because a movie for the female half of the population is a “niche” film, whereas a movie aimed at boys is fun for the whole family! Or so the thinking goes.
This all began after 2009’s The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office. That film had a few notable issues — like a meandering story, in which the princess spent most of her time being a frog — but per the Los Angeles Times, Disney execs came to the conclusion that The Princess and the Frog didn’t attract an audience because boys didn’t want to see a movie about princesses.
With that in mind, Disney Animation’s next princess-centric feature went through an image makeover. Instead of Rapunzel, it would be called Tangled, and the marketing would center on the princess’ love interest Flynn Rider. Here’s the first trailer, released in 2010, which barely includes Rapunzel at all.
Since Rapunzel is, in fact, the main character in Tangled, this is pretty deceptive. A second trailer gave the princess a little more action, but completely excluded the mother-daughter relationship between Rapunzel and her witch mother, Gothel, that makes up the heart of the film.
The next Disney princess film was, of course, Frozen. Here’s the first teaser trailer, released in June 2013, featuring the antics of Olaf the snowman and Sven the reindeer. Not only does this scene exclude protagonists Anna and Elsa — it’s not even a scene from the actual movie.
That was followed by the full Frozen trailer (below), released in September 2013 — which featured a lot more Anna, but once again, heavily emphasized the supporting male characters. It’s telling that Marshmallow the snow monster gets more face time in this trailer than the film’s breakout character Elsa:
Which brings us to Moana. To its credit, Disney hasn’t excluded the main female character in its marketing to the extent that it did with Frozen and Tangled. The first image released from the film featured the princess and the demi-god side by side and a video posted online in October introduced actress Cravalho to the world. So it’s disheartening that the first teaser essentially excludes Moana. Maybe the full-length trailer will be a little more balanced?
The bait-and-switch of the trailers is also indicative of an issue with the princess films themselves: Since 1989’s The Little Mermaid, male characters have had the majority of dialogue in Disney fairy-tale movies. Even though the protagonists of these movies are girls, they exist in a world of male sidekicks and supporting characters who get the last word. There’s just one exception: Disney Pixar’s Brave, which gave female characters more lines than male characters.
And interestingly, Pixar doesn’t seem to have this same marketing concern about girl-centric films. Brave, released two years after Tangled, featured the princess Merida (and her complicated relationship with her mother) front and center in the trailers. Last year’s Inside Out promotion didn’t skimp on the film’s multiple female characters. And the trailers for Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory (in theaters Friday) unapologetically celebrate its piscine protagonist. It’s enough to make a Disney fan think that we don’t have to market these wonderful movies by making girls invisible — but judging from the Moana teaser, we’re not there yet.