She’s No Princess: How ‘Moana’ Continues the Evolution of Disney’s Animated Heroines

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Moana. (Disney)
Moana. (Disney)

Warning: Minor Moana spoilers ahead

Moana, the title character of the upcoming animated adventure, definitely sounds like a classic Disney princess. She’s an adventurous, compassionate, and beautiful young woman who sings, talks to animals, and even has a royal pedigree as the daughter of a Polynesian chief.

But you won’t hear the creative minds behind Moana give their lead character that distinction. “We don’t describe her as a princess,” producer Osnat Shurer told Yahoo Movies at an early press day at the studio’s Burbank offices in August. “We don’t think of her as a princess. We just think of her as one of our strongest lead characters.”

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“May I use the word badass?” John Musker asked during a presentation on the film. Musker, who directs Moana with longtime creative partner Ron Clements, knows a thing or two about princesses, having brought us Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), Jasmine in Aladdin (1992), and Tiana in The Princess and the Frog (2009). With Moana though, he said later, “I think they’re kind of downplaying that term.”

Concept art from “Moana.” (Disney)
Concept art from “Moana.” (Disney)

There’s no doubt Moana — like Princess Merida from 2010’s Brave — finds herself in a more physically demanding story than many of her high-heeled predecessors. The movie’s plot revolves around the seafaring adventures of the teenaged Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), who joins forces with the 2,000-year-old demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) on a quest across the ocean to save her South Pacific island. There’s action, adventure, and — notable for a Disney animated movie — no love interest on the horizon.

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“It’s the story of a strong female protagonist who is going to save the world,” Shurer said. Added Clements: “She’s a flawed character — she’s not perfect by any means, and she’s up against enormous obstacles. We’ve loaded things [against her]. But she has the determination and this grit.”

Given what a lucrative business the stable of Disney princesses has been for the company — just ask any parent who has ever waited in line to take photos with Cinderella, Aurora, or Belle — it’s somewhat surprising to hear Moana‘s filmmakers distance themselves from the tradition.

But we’re also clearly in the middle of a cultural shift on gender depictions in film. In recent years we’ve seen Snow White reimagined as a live-action warrior (Snow White and the Huntsman), Jane Austen’s Bennett sisters battle the undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and the Ghostbusters get a gender flip. And soon, we’ll finally have female-led comic-book movies with Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019).

So in some ways, the very idea of a Disney princess — long a delicate flower who yearned for love and needed rescuing — feels more antiquated by the day. There’s even been a study that suggests engagement with Disney princesses can lead to body issues among young girls.

From the sound of it, Disney is welcoming the evolution, one that started long before Moana. While the original princesses Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were clearly damsels in distress, Disney’s modern-day princesses like Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, were more independent-minded.

A major turning point came with Brave. The sharp-shooting Princess Merida was the most physically gifted in her family and was even declared “the most feminist princess.” Then there’s the ubiquitous hit Frozen. It was a monster box-office smash led by two royal principals in Elsa and Anna, but the studio has yet to anoint either an official Disney princess. That’s led to speculation among fans that the company is moving away from its longtime designation, either because it’s a sign of the times or simply a business decision: Calling a character a “princess” might mean less interest from boys.

Anna and Elsa in 'Frozen' (Disney)
Anna and Elsa in “Frozen.” (Disney)

“I do think times are changing as is what girls aspire to,” noted Shurer, who previously developed shorts at Pixar. “They aspire to the same things boys aspire to. So I do think that’s part of what’s happening in the world around us.”

Perhaps most telling is a scene filmmakers mentioned in Moana that confronts the notion of her identity head-on. Musker and Clements described a moment in which Maui, a physically imposing but playful mentor to Moana, is teasing her. “He says, ‘Hey, princess,’ derogatorily,” Musker said. “And there’s a line where she says, ‘I am not a princess!’”

Moana opens Nov. 23. Watch the trailer: