An image from Disney’s “Moana.” (courtesy of Disney Animation 2016)

AS DISNEY returns to the sea nearly two decades after “The Little Mermaid,” the animation studio’s newest heroine feels a whole world away from Ariel.

In the 1989 undersea film, of course, the young heroine pines for a man from afar, literally losing her voice in the process. In the new “Moana,” by contrast — which also, like “Mermaid,” includes Ron Clements and John Musker as directors — the seafaring title character embarks on a Polynesian journey of self-discovery that does not involve a romantic lead.

Moana, in other words, is no Disney princess.

“Disney does have a legacy of female heroines,” says Bill Schwab, the film’s art director for characters, “but I feel like Moana is unique.”

[Review: Disney’s ‘Moana’ is a breath of fresh island air]

Historically, of course, Disney’s classic storytelling formula for its animated heroines has included landing a love interest, from “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” right up through “Frozen” and “Tangled.” (That list includes such films by Clements and Musker as “Aladdin” and “The Princess and the Frog.”) To find a strong Disney princess who is an exception, you have to look toward such films as Pixar’s “Brave.”

At the center of Moana’s individuality is the Disney team’s focus on creating a teenage adventurer.

“From even the early versions of the script, she was going to be an action hero,” Schwab (“Frozen,” “Wreck-It Ralph”) tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “That [extends] all the way to the way her costume functions. We never let that out of our sight: Moana was going to be doing all this incredible sailing and . . . going toe to toe with [demigod] Maui.”

As a powerful heroine, Schwab says of Moana, “she can hold her own.”

MOANA visual development. Artist: Bill Schwab, MOANA Art Director, Characters.
Visual development art of Moana, by character art director Bill Schwab. (Disney Animation 2016)

Part of that physicality involves capturing the age-specific movement of a 16-year-old. “You try to get those mannerisms — that spirit of being a teenager,” Schwab says.


Visual development art by character art director Bill Schwab. (Disney Animation 2016).

“The other enormous piece of this character,” the designer notes, “was finding Auli’i.”

When the filmmakers found voice actor and singer Auli’i Cravalho, a native of Hawaii, they found a fresh talent who fully embraced the indomitable spirit of Moana. “She brings so much of her teenager-ness” to the role, Schwab says.

On Tuesday, just hours before “Moana” opened, in fact, Cravalho turned 16 — the same age as her character.

“Not a bad 16th birthday present,” Schwab says.

In praising the film’s cultural authenticity Tuesday, the L.A.-based Media Action Network for Asian Americans noted Moana’s strength as an empowered young character.

“We’re confident that children of all ages and backgrounds will identify with Moana, a girl who fearlessly accomplishes the seeming impossible because she feels it’s her duty to help her people,” MANAA said in a statement. “She’s certainly an inspiration and a role model for girls.”

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