Disney’s latest, Moana, is a beautiful, cheerful movie. It’s got strong characters and an engaging story full of great messages as touching as they are fun. The songs, by Hamilton scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda with collaborators Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i, are catchy. The film’s bright Hawaiian setting is the perfect antidote to the darkness of winter. It’s got all the hallmarks of a new classic — one that’s even better than the studio’s previous princess-centric cultural juggernaut, Frozen.
But the film’s qualities go beyond mere positive, escapist fun. In a time when diverse narratives matter — and will continue to matter — more than ever, Moana’s emphatically non-traditional, non-whitewashed take on Disney’s princess films make it one of the most important movies of 2016.
Moana’s titular princess (skilled newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) lives in a bountiful island village, where the fish are plenty and the coconuts come in bushels. Moana is expected to succeed her father as the chief of her village, but she also is eager to explore the world beyond her island — much to her homebody father’s consternation. When her island is blighted by a mysterious, all-consuming ash, Moana decides to save her people by seeking out the trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to return her home to its natural state.
As a heroine, Moana stands out from the ranks of Disney princesses. She’s a capable character, whose strength is supported by her family. The fact that she’s about to take over as her people’s chief is always a given — it’s never questioned, nor is she expected to find a husband to help her rule. As a future leader, Moana is required to be able to do all the things her subjects do, including farming, hunting, and fishing.
The film also includes important intertwined themes of independence and community. Moana’s adventures beyond her home are informed by her understanding of where she comes from. Maui’s story tells of personal sacrifice and a desire to be loved and acknowledged by others.
There’s a great message of leadership in the character of Moana — that being a good leader means being one with the people you lead, not always setting yourself apart. Importantly, the picture of leadership in Moana is also one that can appeal equally to both girls and boys. It’s not watered down by romantic interest, and the obstacles that its heroine faces are relatable to all.
Telling stories that encompass the scope of experience help us understand those whose experiences are different from our own. Amidst current racist, sexist political rhetoric and threats of more to come, we’re going to need more stories that bridge that gap. Moana presents a valuable blueprint for mainstream films to follow — one that challenges traditional movie views of heroes and princesses by simply telling a great story, and letting that story give voice to characters who don’t usually get such a powerful spotlight.