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Halfway through the movie, the title character of "Moana" tells the demigod Maui that she is "not a princess." "Daughter of the chieftain," says Maui. "Same thing." Of course, this conversation is less between the two main characters and more between the filmmakers and their audience: Disney, the company behind "Moana," is well known for pushing its princess culture to impressionable young girls the world over. Recent films like "Brave" and "Frozen" may have subverted the typical wedding bells and happiness-ever-after endings, but "Moana" takes the next step by removing romantic attachments from the story of its "princess" character altogether. She is not defined by her suitors — she defines herself.
Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) is the strong-willed daughter of Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), the chief of a Polynesian community on Motunui Island. Moana dreams of a life at sea (their people were once voyagers), but her father has forbidden anyone from traveling beyond the reef. However, when their crops begin to fail and the fishermen come back with empty nets, Moana's grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), tells the young girl that their fate is due to an ancient crime. Long ago, the Prometheus-like demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess, and thus unleashed evil death and decay upon their ocean world, where once life abounded. Moana has been chosen by the sea itself to find Maui and force him to return the heart, thus restoring balance to the world. And so Moana defies her father and ventures out into the great unknown, filled with monstrous beings and immense danger, accompanied only by her dimwitted chicken Heihei (Alan Tudyk).
At times, the fact that "Moana" is a Disney movie makes it difficult to appreciate as a standalone story, for everywhere we see bits and pieces of other iconic films. The dad who wants his child to remain safe and never venture too far — that's "The Little Mermaid" and "Finding Nemo." The young daughter who dreams of life out in the bigger world — that's "Beauty and the Beast." The charismatic supernatural sidekick — that's "Aladdin." Granted, there are only so many plots and characters in this world, and so any story will contain some recycled elements, but the Disney logo at the beginning of "Moana" makes these parallels stand out and, consequently, they seem the result of lazy storytelling.
That's rather a shame, because "Moana" works fairly well outside the Disney context. For one, the musical numbers are much more integrated into the plot of the movie, rather than as a means of expositional monologue. Many will probably attribute this to the songwriting work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who collaborated with longtime Hollywood composer Mark Mancina and Samoan singer/songwriter Opetaia Foa'i. More crucially, though, there's the character of Moana herself. She is the chosen one, going on the hero's quest (and there is no lack of training montages as she slowly learns how to navigate the seas like her ancestors did.) But her character is presented with so little trace of pretension, and the story told so naturally that (if you're a big, dumb guy like myself) you realize only afterward that you've probably never seen a female character going on the typical hero's journey before. Most other Disney women have been seeking (or, here lately, avoiding) romantic entanglements. Moana, by contrast, represents the company's first female hero in every sense of that word.
And then you also realize that, unlike so many other movie heroines, Moana isn't simply a woman doing what a man can do. After all, the men on her island have given up sailing across the seas. She is doing what no man can do. She is the first. None of the baggage that comes with the Disney brand can erase the power of such a person, of such a story.