*Spoilers ahead for Moana and every Disney movie ever*
Moana was awesome, let’s get that out of the way first off. Here’s our review if you want to take a gander. Part of what made this movie wonderful was one simple, irrefutable fact: Moana is not part of a romance story.
That may seem trivial when compared to the other amazing things Moana had: a woman of color in the lead, a story influenced by and starring Polynesians, a cute pig, etc. But stop and realize that this is incredibly rare. There have been exactly zero Disney Princess movies before it with no romance plot lines. Here’s the list if you don’t believe me:
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White and The Prince
- Cinderella: Cinderella and Charming
- Sleeping Beauty: Aurora and Phillip
- The Little Mermaid: Ariel and Eric
- Beauty and the Beast: Belle and Beast
- Aladdin: Jasmine and Aladdin
- Pocahontas: Pocahontas and John Smith
- Mulan: Mulan and Li Shang
- The Princess and the Frog: Tiana and Naveen
- Tangled: Rapunzel and Flynn Rider
- Frozen: Anna and Kristoff
The most surprising thing about Moana, far and away, is that she controls her story: it is her movie and her story, and it isn’t about her relationship, romantic or not, with another character. Moana is just about…Moana.
It is her self-efficacy that makes Moana such a unique character. But it is important to realize that the fantastic writing that went into building this trait is not new, but instead built on decades of development. Disney has gone through a lot of changes, and while they sometimes took wrong turns, their ever-diversifying audience has pushed them toward this new, better, creation.
To understand just how monumental Moana is, and how her character came to be, you have to understand the development of the Disney Princess, and what they have meant to Disney over the years. So we have to go all the way back to the Golden and Silver Ages of Disney, and the young women who started it all: Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora.
The Classical Princess Formula
Snow White was the first of the Disney Princesses and the lead of Disney’s first animated feature film in 1937. But, most importantly, she made them oodles of money. Adjusting for inflation, Snow White is one of the top ten grossing American films of all time. That’s “drive a Range Rover” kind of money. And now Disney owns pretty much everything we love, so, she did good.
Snow White also became the mold for the Princess character, establishing a set of character traits, which I call the Classical Princess Formula, that would not be challenged for 52 years. The first shot of her movie gives a clue to this formula: Snow is singing to a well in her glorious castle, before being regaled in song by The Prince, who just shows up and starts courting her. Snow White lives her royal life until she is suddenly yanked out of it by the Evil Queen. Snow White cannot return to this life until The Prince kisses her, waking her from her curse so that they can ride off to their happily ever after.
The takeaway: A Disney Princess is white, innocent and sweet;. A Princess has a required romantic storyline. A Princess is a Victim to her villain or conflict, and the Prince is her Savior. Disney replicated this formula during The Silver Age with their next two ladies: Cinderella and Aurora.
Cinderella is white, innocent, and sweet. She has little choice in romance. Cinderella pines for a better life than the one she has as a scullery maid in her house, and sees the royal ball that “every eligible maiden is to attend” as her way to escape it, by meeting the prince and hoping he falls in love with her. And of course, when her foot fits the glass slipper, and because of a royal decree, wham bam she’s married to Charming (there is literally one second between her foot fitting and the wedding bells). She gets rescued from her bad situation by her Savior.
Sleeping Beauty delivered the height of classical Disney Princess-dom, with Aurora (or Briar Rose). She is the best example of the Classical Princess: white, sweet, and innocent, with
so little control over her course in the story that she’s barely in it: she has around eighteen minutes of screen time. She has no control over her romance plot: Aurora is engaged to Phillip since birth. Phillip is also her Savior, and perhaps the greatest of them all: he’s in the movie far more than she is and fights a dragon, some demons, and some bushes to kiss her back to life.
After Sleeping Beauty, everything changed. The film was an utter failure. It was the most expensive film Disney had produced at the time, but this did not translate to box office returns and was met with a lackluster critical response. This failure, coupled with the death of Walt Disney in 1966, persuaded Disney to stop producing fairytales and Princess movies altogether. The Bronze Age followed, which focused on darker, non-fairytale, and non-musical stories. Disney went a total of 30 years without a Princess, until Ron Clements and John Musker (a fellow Northwestern University grad!) co-wrote and directed the movie that revolutionized animation, brought musicals and fairy tales back to Disney and introduced the strongest woman character Disney had ever created.
The Renaissance and undoing the Princess Formula
The Disney Renaissance completely changed how Disney was perceived. Their movies went from popular to box office monsters, Academy Award nominees, and social commentaries. It also changed what it meant to be a Disney Princess, and it all began with Ariel, daughter of Triton, collector of junk, and all around rebel.
Ariel represented a new kind of princess for Disney, one that rebelled against the celebrated systems from previous films. She is certainly white, but rather than being sweet and innocent; her primary character trait is curiosity. She is also a bit of a troublemaker. The opening scene of The Little Mermaid includes a royal concert that King Triton promptly stops when he realizes Princess Ariel isn’t there. Ariel isn’t there because she’s out digging up a ship graveyard with her best fish friend. She then traps a shark, talks to her bird friend about the fork she found and realizes she forgot about her concert. Here we have the most complicated Princess we’ve seen yet. Ariel is curious, deals with danger on her own, and has a fault: she’s absentminded.
Ariel is also novel in her participation in her (still required) romantic storyline. It is the first time we see a Princess exercise choice in this area: Ariel saves Eric (also a first) and then expresses her physical interest in him in the reprise of “Part of Your World”:
No, look! He’s breathing. He’s so, beautiful.
What would I give
To live where you are?
What would I pay
To stay here beside you?
What would I do to see you
Smiling at me?
Where would we walk?
Where would we run?
If we could stay all day in the sun?
Just you and me
And I could be
Part of your world
-“Part of Your World (Reprise)” from The Little Mermaid, performed by Jodi Benson
Ariel expressing the first instance of possible romance is a novel concept, especially for Disney at the time. Also, she’s attracted to someone she shouldn’t be, according to her father and their culture. Ariel is a strong minded and curious female lead who is part of a strong parable for non-conforming relationships.
Unfortunately, she is still bound by some familiar tropes. Ariel has to get the Prince to fall in love with her, by way of him kissing her, to get her voice back. What was the embodiment of her desire to get out of her oppressive world, Eric has now become the end goal, and the love plot is pushed because, well, she’s a Princess and this is Disney. She also remains the Victim, for Eric the Savior. Nonetheless, Ariel does participate actively in her required romance, a first.
The rest of the Renaissance Princesses mainly follow Ariel in denying the Classical Princess Formula. Of the five, three are non-white (Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan).
None have sweet innocence as their primary trait:
Ariel has her curiosity. Belle has intelligence, both bibliophilic and emotional. Jasmine is righteously defiant in thought and action, being born into the role of princess, but rejecting the limits and restrictions that come with being a woman in her station. Her father, the Sultan, reminds her that the law says she must be married to a prince by her next birthday, to which she replies “The law is wrong.” When he insists, she drops the hammer “Then maybe I don’t want to be a princess.” She then sneaks away, intending to leave the life behind permanently. Pocahontas is free-spirited, which is evident the first time Pocahontas is even brought up in the story, when her father, Chief Powhatan, arrives back in their village. “Where is my daughter?” He asks to Kekata. “You know Pocahontas. She has her mother’s spirit. She goes wherever the wind takes her.” Her free spirit is shown in her fear of marrying Kocoum, and her eventual refusal to bend to her people’s decision to kill John Smith. Mulan is brave, above all else, choosing to take her father’s place in defending China against the Shan Yu. She’s also clumsy and clever and disproves masculinity and brute force as the only options available. Her bravery shines above all else, as she rejects the required systems of her culture and family, an option that is clearly not easy for her.
“Look at me … I will never pass for a perfect bride
Or a perfect daughter
Can it be?
I’m not meant to play this part?
Now I see
That if I were truly to be myself
I would break my family’s heart.”
-“Reflection” from Mulan, performed by Lea Salonga
The other Renaissance Princesses, like Ariel, were beholden to having a romantic interest, though most now had a choice and active participation in this area, unlike their predecessors:
Ariel chooses to pursue Eric, despite her father’s restrictions. Belle decides to love and stay with Beast, though there is a strong argument to be made for Stockholm Syndrome. Jasmine chooses to love Aladdin, and on her terms: she doesn’t want his Prince Ali façade and doesn’t put up with his crap. Pocahontas rejects her father’s choice, Kocoum, and instead falls for John Smith, very much against her father’s wishes. Mulan chooses to love Li Shang, despite going against the restrictions set in place by her family and culture.
The other Renaissance Princesses had mixed success in ending the Savior/Victim paradigm:
Ariel was the Victim to Ursula, in need of Eric her Savior, though she did at least take part in the conclusion. Belle acts as the Savior metaphorically, by saving Beast from his eternal curse, and literally, by saving his life after expressing her love for him (just like Princes had done to her predecessors). Jasmine is the Victim to Jafar, in need of Aladdin her Savior, though like Ariel she contributes to the conclusion. Pocahontas flips the paradigm, acting as the Savior to John Smith, the Victim. In this conclusion, she also solves the conflict of the movie non-violently, calling for a cessation of the fighting between the Powhatan and the English. Every Princess movie before Pocahontas required violence, usually by the Prince Savior, to conclude it. Mulan flips the paradigm, consistently acting as the Savior and rescuing her fellow soldiers and Li Shang.
All in all, Disney did a pretty great job of subverting the tropes they had created during the Gold and Silver Ages. However, hand in hand with this new progressivism came a set of new, often restrictive tropes.
The Renaissance Princess Requirements
The Renaissance Princesses were far more complex than their classical predecessors, though they delivered one rather problematic trope, and a one fun one, in what I call the Renaissance Princess Requirements. First, a Princess’ story had to include something about them being a lady:
Ursula reminds us that Ariel is a woman, and needs her to be, for her plan to work: “But they dote and swoon and fawn, On a lady who’s withdrawn, It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man.” In Beauty, the narrator tells us that, “If [Beast] could learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken.” So, Belle had to be a lady for there to be a movie. Also Gaston, “It’s not right for a woman to read–soon she starts getting ideas…and thinking.” Jasmine is required to marry by her next birthday because she is the daughter of the sultan. She also has to be the daughter so that Jafar can marry her and enact his plan. Chief Powhatan reminds us that Pocahontas is his daughter, so it’s her job to marry Kocoum like he tells her too. Of them all, Mulan needs the least explanation; there’s a song literally called “Be a Man.”
Each of these characters must be a woman for their story to make sense, and more importantly, they have to be women in relation to men, as daughters or lovers.
The far more fun requirement these Princesses gave us was the necessity of an animal companion. Animals had been a Disney requirement since the beginning, but for most of the Classical Princesses, these were just random forest creatures (or mice) that liked them because they sang. But for the new Princesses, a companion became a staple, and they acted as friends, consciences, and easily merchandisable comic relief:
Ariel has Flounder, her consistent worry-wort fish pal. Belle has Phillippe, her horse that leads her to her father in Beast’s castle. Jasmine has Rajah, a sassy tiger who dislikes anyone who annoys Jasmine. Pocahontas has Meeko, a troublesome raccoon, and Flit, a super-competent hummingbird. Mulan has Mushu, her guardian ancestor dragon, Cri-Kee, a lucky cricket, and Khan, her loyal horse.
In addition to the pet was the creation of the wise grandma figure, seen first in Pocahontas with Grandmother Willow, then Mulan with Grandmother Fa. These women would act as ancestral and spiritual guides for their young granddaughters.
Disney Princesses Episode VI: The Return of the Princess
The Renaissance films and their leading ladies made Disney a lot of money. However, milder box office returns from Mulan and increasing competition from Pixar and DreamWorks persuaded them to once again stop producing fairy tales, musicals, and princess films. Even after the utter and complete success that was the official Princess franchise, Disney still decided not to bring back their main ladies. That is, until 2009, when Musker and Clements were chosen to bring back the traditional animation division, fairy tale, musical, and the Princess, with The Princess and the Frog. This would kick off the Post-Renaissance Era, and a host of new, more nuanced Princesses: Tiana, Rapunzel, and Anna.
The Post-Renaissance Princesses continued to buck the Classical Princess Formula, for the most part. One of three is non-white (Tiana). All three have a primary trait beyond sweet innocence. They still have a required romance, though, like their predecessors, they are active participants with a choice. Unlike their predecessors, their choice was largely accepted, with no cultural or dramatic reason why they can’t be with their romantic choices. They also nixed the Savior/Victim paradigm, often trading the roles back and forth.
The new Princesses mostly subverted the Renaissance Princess Requirement of needing to be a woman for plot purposes:
Tiana needs to be a woman because Prince Naveen needs a princess to kiss so he cannot be a frog. Rapunzel is not involved in any plot that requires her to be a woman. Anna is not involved in any plot that requires her to be a woman.
Each of the Princesses fulfills the pet Requirement, though with some slight alterations:
Tiana is the animal, so it doesn’t quite work, though she is accompanied by Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator, and Ray, the kooky old firefly. Rapunzel has Pascal, her supportive pet Chameleon. Anna doesn’t technically have a pet, but let’s be honest, that’s what Olaf is supposed to be, and she also becomes friends with Sven, the reindeer.
The most significant contribution of Tangled was controversial: Disney began its policy of “gender neutral” titles. After the mild financial success of The Princess and the Frog, Disney decided to remove Princess from future titles and highlight the male characters of the films in marketing, so as not to make a “girl” movie. The result, as far as Disney saw it, was nothing but success: Tangled made about twice as much as Frog. They repeated this strategy with Frozen, which made them the most money. It was repeated three years later, for their most complex Princess to date.
The Age of Moana
Moana is directed by Musker and Clements, who if you’ve been paying attention, are responsible for quite a bit of the development of the Disney Princess. They brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, and Princess and the Frog, all of which are felt deeply in Moana. It is their tribute to the Renaissance. In the process, they also helped create one of the most nuanced Princesses in Disney’s history.
Moana is the zenith of the development of her predecessors. She rejects both the Classical Princess Formula and the Renaissance Princess Requirements outright, while still paying homage to those who came before.
Moana is neither white, not innocently sweet. Instead, she is portrayed as (and voiced by!) a woman of color and embodies character traits from each of her preceding Princesses. Moana trades off the Savior/Victim role throughout the film with Maui, with each of them assisting and teaching each other. Moana is not part of a plot that requires her to be a girl. She simply is, and that’s wonderful.
Most significantly, and most originally, Moana is the first Disney Princess in 79 years to not have a romance plot. There is absolutely no romance involved in her story. It is neither the underlying plot, nor just a little aside, nor the focus. Her relationship with Maui is one of mentor and friendship, not of romance. Moana finally shows that one can be a princess without needing romance.
In making this very intentional story choice, Musker and Clements have achieved their masterpiece, a tribute to their work. They started down a path 27 years ago that would completely rewrite what it meant to be a Disney Princess. In that time, Disney continued to break new ground but was also criticized, and rightfully so. A more informed and platform-having public ensured that Disney knew that their choices regarding gender, race, and character would have to change. Moana shows that they have listened, and strived to become better.
Despite this progress, this by no means says that their work is done. Disney must continue to learn and grow, and embrace their more diverse audience. Let’s hope that Moana is the start of a new age for Disney, one with diverse characters, new forms of storytelling, and an ever-strengthening Princess.
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