When Disney announced its next big project would be the tale of a Pacific princess named Moana, it's fair to say expectations were high. We knew the film would be filled with catchy songs, presented with beautiful animation and voiced by a stellar cast. It was assumed to become a box office juggernaut, reaching the heights of Tangled or perhaps even Frozen, and we accepted it would produce a monumental amount of merchandise to be fiercely coveted by anyone under the age of 10.
What we didn't count on, however, was Moana rising as a rare example of a film which embraces the culture it represents, instead of trying to whitewash it.
In 2016 Hollywood studios cast people like Scarlett Johansson as the main character in the adaption of Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell, and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange. Meanwhile Gods Of Egypt hit screens with no Egyptian actors to be seen, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot failed to cast any actual Afghan actors in the role of, well, Afghans.
Disney avoided such questionable casting decisions by assembling a cast for Moana, made up of actors who all share some Polynesian heritage.
Hawaiians Auli'i Cravalho and Nicole Scherzinger voice the characters of Moana and Sina, while American-Samoan actor Dwayne Johnson breathes life into demi-god Maui. Māori New Zealanders Rachel House, Jemaine Clement and Temeura Morrison appear in the film as Gramma Tala, Tamatoa and Chief Tui and Samoan New Zealander Oscar Kightley pops up as a fisherman. In fact the only member of the main voice cast who isn't of Polynesian descent is Alan Tudyk, though Tudyk doesn't actually speak any words in his primary role as the rooster, Heihei.
Interestingly, not only is the character of Moana voiced by 16-year-old Hawaiian newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, she's also perfectly age-appropriate for the role of 16-year-old Moana. Moana marks the first time Disney has cast an actor of a similar age to the princess they're voicing, perhaps taking cues from Pixar Studios, which is known for using children to voice young characters.
Moana marks the first time Disney has cast an actor of a similar age to the princess they're voicing
One of Moana's most exciting inclusions is the character Maui, a legendary figure who appears in the myths and legends of many different Polynesian countries. Maui is essentially as close to a superhero as Polynesian culture has, and the news that he would be included in Moana wasn't welcomed by some who feared that the demi-god may end up being reduced to a sidekick, good only for comic relief.
Thankfully, Disney and Dwayne Johnson bring Maui to life with the level of respect he deserves. At his core, Maui is a light-hearted figure, legendary as a mischievous trickster. Yet Disney also ensures that his impressive abilities — such as slowing the sun, or raising islands from the ocean — are never forgotten, thanks to the impressive moving tattoos adorning his body.
Maui isn't the only cultural aspect of Moana treated with respect; the team behind the film actually established a group known as the Oceanic Story Trust to ensure the details of Moana would be as authentic as possible.
The trust was made up of anthropologists, historians, linguists, tattoo masters, community elders and artists, all ready to advise the crew. The goal: ensure Disney produced the most accurate film possible. This dedication to authenticity has been especially important for a studio such as Disney, which has made culturally insensitive blunders in the past.
Moana stands alone as the first realistic-looking Disney princess.
In fact Moana is especially unique because Disney didn't choose to depict the characteristics of one specific country, but took inspiration from Polynesia as a whole. The result is a collision of worlds, which could have been wildly insensitive, but instead ends up brilliantly showcasing parts of the many Polynesian nations.
Moana doesn't merely offer insight into a culture which is rarely presented to mainstream viewers in a complimentary manner; the film goes further by giving audiences a realistic and empowering heroine to look up to.
Moana, the tough and determined central character, joins Frozen's Elsa and Brave's Merida to create a small minority of Disney princesses without a love interest. (OK, Elsa is now actually a queen...) In fact the film stands alone as the sole Disney princess film not to introduce a love story into the mix at all (Frozen has Anna's love story, and Brave is technically speaking a Pixar film).
Moana's story is propelled entirely by her love for her people and a hunger for adventure. Ultimately the story reinforces the message that being true to yourself and following your dreams is the real key to happiness. That's surely a message parents would like their children to hear, instead of the overused trope that a romantic partner is the only path to fulfillment.
Moana joins Frozen's Elsa and Brave's Merida to create a small minority of Disney princesses without a love interest.
On a purely physical level Moana stands alone as the first realistic-looking Disney princess. With a waistline wider than her neck, and powerful arms that actually look as though they could wield an oar, Moana looks more like her audience than any other Disney princess. Moana is simply realistic, something Disney fans have hoped to see for years.
With Moana having only just opened in the US, and yet to be released in many international markets, it remains to be seen exactly how well the tale of the determined Polynesian princess will do. But given the cast, the cultural respect, and the smart story, there's no doubt Moana is already a triumph for Disney, a new crowning jewel.