Just as Disney’s “Frozen” captivated audiences of millions of kids, it looks like “Moana” will follow as the next great Disney tale of a young princess. When it movie screens during Thanksgiving weekend, the film immediately beat all previous box office records set by “Frozen.” So one thing is clear – the idol of many young girls around the world his holiday season will be Moana, the young Polynesian heroine (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho).
Taking a big picture view, there’s a lot about “Moana” that should remind you of “Frozen.” For one, there’s the young princess-like figure who must embark on a quest. Only this quest takes place somewhere in mythical Polynesia, whereas “Frozen” was based in a Scandinavia-like country of ice and snow. But the basic element – of awakening to one’s future destiny – is truly timely.
The basic plot of “Moana” is basically a heroic quest story that is inspired by a Polynesian legend. According to this legend, it is someone’s fate to restore the stolen heart of Te Fiti, goddess of creation. This heart was stolen nearly 1,000 years ago by the demigod Maui.
And that’s where things get interesting because Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) may boast many of the external features of a demigod – a larger-than-life presence, imposing tattoos, and a muscular physique – but he has lost many of his former powers, rendering him more human.
The film “Moana” picks up on this aspect, turning a quest movie into something more – the story of a friendship between a girl and a man, both of them bound together on an epic quest. It’s the universal themes throughout the film that really give the film a big, epic feel to it. This is not a small Polynesian tale – it is a global, epic ale covering many of the features and attributes that define humanity.
Chief among these traits is the ability to find one’s self. For a young princess heroine, it means coming to grips with her destiny. From a young age, she had been told to avoid the sea and to find her destiny elsewhere. But there is something irresistible about the sea that calls out to Moana, beckoning her to challenge herself. Aided by her grandmother, she realizes that she must venture out on the sea and save her family and community.
Another trait that the film contemplates is the nature of true heroism. Is being a hero merely challenging a demigod or other mythical creature? Or does it also include challenging the doubts that we hold within ourselves. This being a Disney film, it’s easy to guess what the right answer is.
And, that quite possibly, is why this film will become iconic for so many young girls. Although the blue princess outfit of Elsa will remain a staple in any young girl’s wardrobe, don’t be surprised if you start to see the faces of Moana and Maui emblazoned on a wide array of Disney products going forward.
There is one more element of the film that will make it irresistible to so many audiences, and that’s the music. By now, you’ve probably heard that the feel-good music is courtesy of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, a rising superstar in the entertainment world. While the movie soundtrack may not boast a favorite song of quite the epic scale of Frozen’s “Let It Go,” this soundtrack may be more engaging when viewed as an overall collection of songs.
And, finally, there’s the larger-than-life figure of Maui. In many ways, the cartoon animated version of Maui bears a striking resemblance to the real-world figure of The Rock. But Disney does more than turn Maui into a hulking action figure. He’s imbued with a number of traits that hint at his inner vulnerability. Moreover, there are some endearing moments in the film – such as when he stops mid-battle to readjust his “man bun” – that help to define his character.
What Disney has done so charmingly is avoid yet another formulaic princess film. It would have been easy to just go ahead with another “Frozen” clone and count all the guaranteed box office receipts. But Disney went one step further and actually came up with a film that even adults will enjoy.
There are a number of reasons why the audience will likely be so universal. One, as noted above, are all the timely themes embedded within the film. But the other may be the action sequences – even if animated – that are easily the rival of any found in “Frozen.”
Whether this is a big step forward for a new, multicultural Disney is an issue that entertainment critics will likely debate. That means not only rethinking the characters who will act in these animated features, but also the values, ideals and legends that they will embrace.
Take “Frozen,” for example. That was a film loosely based on a famous tale by Hans Christian Andersen and one that took place within a definitely European milieu. Elsa herself was a thin, blonde princess with a gorgeous outfit.
Now, contrast that with Moana. You have a film based on a Polynesian legend and one that takes place in a very non-Western (but not anti-Western) milieu.
And there’s another reason why audiences are buzzing about Moana. She is, truly, a multiethnic heroine more so than any Disney heroine in recent memory.
The heroine Moana – voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho – does not look like we might expect a Disney princess to look. As some critics have pointed out, the limbs are thicker, the waist is rounder and the skin complexion is darker. Moana’s diversity helps to differentiate this Disney film, but it does not define it. For young children, the focus will be on Moana as Moana, and can and will provide a positive role model to young girls who aren’t just white and thin. And the story plotline – the epic quest – is one that is timeless around the globe.
For now, it looks like Disney has yet another mega-hit on its hands. Kids and parents must now be wondering just one single question: When is the sequel to “Moana” going to come out?