Disney's Frozen was a runaway success, charming adults and children alike with its whimsical fairy tale story and poignant sisterly redemption. However, the film also faced criticisms, from fans who protested the lack of people of colour in Frozen and Disney's other works. Without delving into the thorny debate (and it gets pretty heated!), suffice to say that these issues are not new ones. Although it's true that princesses of colour have had quite a few films, the vast majority of characters in Disney's plethora of films and shows have been white. Even the princesses themselves have a ratio of 7 white princesses to 4 princesses of colour and well, you get the picture. Diversity is not exactly Disney's strong point.
However, with Moana slated for a 2016 release, the studio might just be able to recover from the problems that were only made worse by Frozen. In a welcome shift from European fairy tales, Moana is the story of a young Pacific Islander (perhaps Polynesian), who strikes out on an epic journey to find a "fabled island". With Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson voicing her sidekick, demi-god Maui, this film is already winning diversity points.
Just like Anna in Frozen, Moana has her own mission. But instead of dealing with a family issue, Moana's purpose is more spiritual. According to the official synopsis, Moana is following in her ancestor's footsteps...
Three thousand years ago, the greatest sailors in the world voyaged across the vast South Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, for a millennium, their voyages stopped — and no one today knows why. [Moana is the] spirited teenager who sails out on a daring mission to prove herself a master wayfinder and fulfill her ancestors’ unfinished quest.
This is all very exciting, as the film will focus on Moana's prowess as a "born navigator," she will join the likes of Mulan and Tiana as a practically talented princess on her own personal quest. Hopefully Moana is set to be an inspiration to children everywhere, as well as representing a group of people rarely seen in the Disney universe.
In protest about Disney's choice to populate the icy adventure with white characters, fans started a fanart movement to show what Frozen could have been, usually using Inuit culture as a starting point, but other nationalities have also been represented, such as Korean...
So why all the fuss? It's true that ideologically race is an important issue, but why is it so important to consider in children's programming? Doesn't that stuff usually go over kids' heads?
While it may be true that children are not tuned in to the politics of this particular social issue, that doesn't mean that they aren't affected by it. In a recent study, girls aged 3-6 were shown multiple clips of Disney Princess films. Afterwards, many said they wanted to "change their skin and hair colour." With any luck, Moana will compare to Frozen's success, helping the studio support their most impressionable fans.
Casting and more!
With Samoan wrestler-turned actor Dwayne Johnson having a confirmed role in the project, and Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi writing the script's first draft, Moana is already upping the diversity. An open casting call in New Zealand prompted hundreds of girls of many ethnicities to send in their videos. One of the most likely candidates is Makamae Kailani Auwae, a young Hawaiian singer. Read more of her story, and see other budding actresses here.
This will make a difference from the star-studded Frozen cast, but is fresh blood really what Disney needs? One of Frozen's successes was the casting of Idina Menzel: the Wicked star helped push the film to fame with her strong singing voice. In fact, some fans have called Frozen the "feature length music video for Let It Go." So could casting an unknown as Moana doom the new film? Or could Disney be set to rocket a rising star to fame?
Hope on the horizon
With an interesting and exotic setting, an exciting seafaring tale, and an unusual heroine, Moana is shaping up to be one of Disney's greatest hits. Whether it will rival Frozen's meteoric success is another matter, but hopefully the Pacific Island caper will set a new trend for princesses of colour within Disney's universe. And with an animation style similar to Paperman, blending CG animation with watercolour-like paintings, Moana will definitely be a treat to watch!