Moana Is Example of Disney’s Progress

Graphic by Mel Egan

By Abby Lass


Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Walt Disney Studios has not always been a friend to minorities. From racially insensitive lyrics in Aladdin to horrifyingly inaccurate depictions of history in Pocahontas, the company has had difficulty sharing these non-Eurocentric stories without misrepresenting or simply butchering them entirely. And that doesn’t even take into account the questionable messages it’s been sending little girls about what empowerment looks like, no matter their skin color.

Moana, the studio’s newest feature, seems to be a benchmark to prove that progressive steps have been taken. The film’s titular character, played by 16 year old Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, is the spirited and tenacious daughter of a chief who chooses to defy her father’s wishes, embrace her voyager roots, and employ the skills of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to essentially stop the world from turning into ash.

If the story arc seems unoriginal, it’s because it largely is. The movie steals and repackages plot points and emotional development from Mulan, the third Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Little Mermaid (which was directed also John Musker and Ron Clements, the team behind several other Disney classics including Hercules and Treasure Planet). The music is catchy and infectious in the moment, but relatively forgettable. It’s also worth noting that the most memorable songs were written or performed by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords.

The visuals in this film are stunning, I won’t deny it. Moana’s hair made me proud of my curls, the ocean made me nostalgic for summer, and Te Fiti, the Earth goddess, was described by my mother as “Beyoncé in green”. While I don’t mean to belittle the extreme funding and dedication that goes into making these images as captivating as they are, it’s also hard to deny that these impressive visuals are, at this point, just the standard when it comes to modern animated features.

So is there any glimmer of hope for this film amidst the mounds of mediocrity?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.

While the movie itself may not be as memorable as some of its more problematic predecessors, I also have to admit that this is a movie that history will remember fondly. Because what Moana lacks in distinctiveness, it makes up for in positive depictions of underrepresented populations.

This film gives us a teenager of color who values the responsibility placed on her but is also not afraid to solve problems her own way. She’s compassionate, strong, and has the body of an actual human, including features that go beyond the stereotypical big eyes and button nose of most Disney princesses. We also get to see a community try to balance intergenerational interests while still maintaining their traditions and a male character who owns up to his own insecurities, almost literally wearing his heart on his sleeve.

So while this may not end up being your little cousin’s favorite Disney movie of all time, it’s one that all children should see.