The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For the Washington Post’s review of “Moana,” click here.
Since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” came out in 1937, Disney has made major advances in many areas. “Moana” showcases three of them: hair, water and princesses.
Let’s begin with the first two: Set in the generically Polynesian Pacific, the animated film moves from a lush island to a constantly undulating sea, and every curl of the characters’ hair and every ripple on the ocean is so lovingly constructed that “Moana” is easily the most visually beautiful movie Disney has ever made.
It’s also the most self-referential. Not only with in-jokes, but in addressing head-on the phenomenon that is the Disney Princess Industrial Complex.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of a chief, and her island is imperiled by an environmental threat. Against the wishes of her father, she sets out on a canoe (accompanied by Heihei, a rooster who is a few brains short of a bucket) to right the wrong and save her home. Along the way, she runs into shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who repeatedly and snidely calls her “Princess.” Moana clarifies that she is not a princess, she is “the daughter of the chief.” “Look,” Maui says, “if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
That is, in fact, the most accurate description of Disney princesses ever written. For Disney, “princess” has just been shorthand for “girl at center of movie,” probably because women and girls have had to earn the right to even BE at the center of a movie — and being a princess was, for a long time, the only way for a woman to be seen as having a story worth telling.
Disney has (thankfully) slowly been shifting away from that; most of its modern princesses are actually fairly anti-princess. Merida and Jasmine resist the strictures their roles place on them; Tiana marries a prince and then opens her restaurant anyway; and Elsa (who is a QUEEN for most of “Frozen”) literally flees from power. Being a princess became a burden to be shouldered, not a goal to be achieved by marrying the right blandly handsome guy.
Moana has a more complex relationship with what a princess is. She genuinely wants to serve her people and believes she would lead well. Leading well, though, would leave her personally unsatisfied. But leaving the island would hurt the people she loves, and she’d be abandoning a part of herself. For Moana, being a princess is neither goal nor burden — but at the same time, it’s both.
A lot of women (and girls) have that sort of relationship with the structures and strictures of femininity. As an unabashed feminist, I’m genuinely embarrassed that my husband takes care of all my car maintenance and I don’t even know how to start our lawn mower. I believe with equal fervor in both body positivity and the power of Spanx.
Maui’s dismissive definition shows how irrelevant the very notion of “princess” in the Disney sense has become. Moana isn’t a princess, and she is, and it doesn’t matter, just like how it really doesn’t matter how women embrace, reject or ignore traditional symbols of femininity. Just get a dress (or pants, if you want) and an animal sidekick, and you’re good.