What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think Disney? Mickey Mouse? Disney Theme Parks? A pretty princess? Or maybe, you just think about “wish[ing] upon a star, as dreamers do.” Love it or hate it, I’m sure you have an opinion about Disney.
Let me state my opinion right off the bat: I LOVE Disney! Growing up in Southern California, I was raised on a steady diet of The Disney Channel, Disney movies and, of course, Disneyland. I first learned about Disneyland when I tuned in to an old TV special where an enthusiastic Walt Disney showed us his plans for “The Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction. I have been spellbound ever since. I visited Disneyland so much that I pretty much grew up in the shadow of the Matterhorn 1.
From the time I was five years old, my dream was to work at Disneyland. And I did–for 15 magical years! Whether it was helping guests select a decadent candied apple from the “Hunny Spot” in Pooh’s Corner, printing out a photograph of them as they plunged down a five-story drop at Splash Mountain, commandeering a yellow submarine as they searched for a clownfish named Nemo, or piloting the Disneyland Monorail to take exhausted guests back to their Disneyland Resort Hotel for some relaxation, as a cast member 2, I had the job of my dreams.
Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” His imagination was the key to his vocation. And, without a doubt, he had a very clear image of what he thought a princess should be.
Since the premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” back in 1934, Disney princesses have fit a particular profile. They’re beautiful. They’re honest. They’re caring. They sing well. And they ALWAYS fall in love with a prince! Cinderella and Aurora follow this Disney princess profile. Nothing was more important to these leading ladies than finding “true love,” being rescued, and living happily ever after with their prince. Snow White sings “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Cinderella sings “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and Aurora sings about meeting her prince “Once Upon a Dream.”
These fairytales are classics, thoroughly enjoyable, and masterfully animated all by hand. But let’s be real, these protagonist princesses have little to no depth.
In recent decades, Disney has introduced us to: Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, and Rapunzel. Although some of these princesses broke the “Disney mold” in certain ways (some by being non-white and others by being portrayed as strong, independent women), they have one thing in common: they inevitably end up with “true love” and happily ever afters. Even Elsa and Anna’s story in “Frozen, which was not so much about romantic love, Anna still winds up with a guy!
But now the princess profile is changing with Moana of Motunui. Actually, we’re not even supposed to call her a princess! She tells Maui (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) “I’m not a princess– I’m the daughter of a chief.” Moana is a character that anybody- girl or boy- can relate to. She is more than just pretty- she’s inspirational.
Moana refuses to be complacent. She sails beyond the reef not to find a partner, but for a love that is rooted in family and her island community. She sees the best in everyone, and even recognizes value in her sidekick chicken, Hei Hei, who others automatically dismiss as stupid. Moana is a seeker who knows that to find out who she is, she will have to test the limits of what she can do. This is no damsel in distress. As she deftly navigates the dangers of the Pacific Ocean, I found myself thinking, “I want to be like her!”
Moana is undeniably as three dimensional as the beautiful CGI world she inhabits 3. Voiced by a native Hawaiian, fourteen year-old Auli’i Cravalho, her character feels remarkably authentic. Compared to the princesses of Walt Disney’s creation, Moana feels real and relatable.
Romance is nowhere to be found in Moana. In fact, Moana completes a near-impossible task with very little help from a male character. This is a far cry from the Disney princesses of the past. And it sends an important message to children: that gender should not limit them, nor should others’ expectations define them. The strongest message Princess Moana sends out, is that relying on a superficial “true love” will not yield a meaningful happily ever after and that putting others first is what true love is all about.
It’s fitting that the top track from this movie is the remarkably beautiful and haunting song, “How Far I’ll Go.” Moana belts, (or maybe even boasts!), “If I go, there’s no telling how far I’ll go!”
As we think about how far Disney princesses have come since the days of Snow White, we can look to a future where Disney will go even further in giving us strong and relatable female characters who will help children dream of a different type of ‘happily ever after.’