Disney's #Moana broke records this past week in a triumphant Thanksgiving outing at the box office. The story not only has resonated with audiences, but it gave us Disney's first Polynesian princess and the first Polynesian-themed film since Lilo & Stitch.
That in itself is pretty cool, but there was another big thing that Moana did successfully, and that is the successful development of the Disney anti-hero.
Walt Disney Animation has dabbled with creating anti-heroes for their animated features throughout the years, but it seems to always have been a bit of a struggle. Although it could be argued that Walt Disney Animation gave us a great anti-hero with Queen Elsa in Frozen, I'm here to talk about how the studio did an even better job with Maui in Moana.
The studio has continued to improve not only with its storytelling, but also with its character development. Moana was fantastic in general, but let's examine how her unexpected adversary/friend wound up being one of the highlights of both the movie and hints at the direction #Disney may be headed.
What exactly is an anti-hero?
Basically, an anti-hero is an essential protagonist of a story — just like any other main or supporting character. However, they tend to dabble along the fine line of good guy vs. bad guy. Anti-heroes often lack classic heroic traits such as morality, courage or positive idealism. They are often imperfect, flawed, selfish, narcissistic, impolite, violent or greedy.
The subject of anti-heroes has been pretty high on people's radar lately, and it's mostly due to the latest #DCExtendedUniverse installment, #SuicideSquad. The concept that a "hero" can emerge from a character lacking basic heroic traits is not only fun to watch, but it can be unexpectedly pleasant.
Was Queen Elsa an anti-hero?
At this point, it's very difficult to deny the popularity that still surrounds Frozen. The film took the world by storm back in 2013 and Walt Disney Animation has never really been the same since — but does Elsa really fit into the anti-hero mold?
The studio didn't stick with the original intention to make her the main villain. To keep the sisterly plot line intact, they morphed Elsa into more of an anti-heroine in the sense that she didn't necessarily have bad intentions, but she was using her powers for her own personal gain — no matter that consequences her people suffered as a result. Although Elsa seemed to be redeemed by the end of the film, as is pretty standard for anti-hero storytelling arcs, her motivations or powers were never really resolved.
The selfless "act of love" that saved the plot (and Arendelle) wasn't even committed by Elsa; her redemption was fully dependent on other characters and wasn't necessarily a direct result of anything she did. It's all well and good to think Elsa is redeemed and on the right path, but I didn't walk away feeling like she actually learned a lesson from the events of the film.
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Why is Maui such a great anti-hero?
Although Maui has a typical anti-hero origin of coming across as narcissistic, selfish, rude and being clearly only out to help himself, the portrayal and perception of who he is shifts as the story goes on, because we actually learn who he is, how he gained his powers and what motivated him to ultimately destroy his people's way of life. We not only learn about Maui's past and see the mistakes he's made, but we get to watch him fully blossom into a refreshed character as he learns the lessons for himself and acts on making himself more than what he thought he was capable of.
Maui has a clear storyline, motivation and full path to redemption. We not only learn why Maui has spent over 1,000 years in exile, but we see the events leading up to what made Maui who he is from multiple perspectives.
Sure, Maui also had some help and encouragement from Moana, just like Elsa did from Anna and Olaf, but his redemption wasn't solely based on the actions of the other characters. He made the evolution himself.
I have no doubt that we will continue to see the role of the anti-hero increase in both live-action film and animation. It's a trend we are in right now and it does make for some serious box office cash. I mean, $25.6 million at the box office in one weekend for Moana is pretty impressive. Not to mention the monumental $325 million that Warner Bros.' anti-hero-filled outing, Suicide Squad, raked in domestically.
Box office numbers aside, I think the success of Moana is a positive thing not just for its groundbreaking elements, but because of how it utilized its villains and primary anti-hero. I hope the utilization and creativity used to create Maui is a sign of even better things to come from Walt Disney Animation. Since Frozen, we've gotten better and better stories and characters from Big Hero 6 and Zootopia — and with the inclusion of Moana, things just keep looking up.