Several years ago, I wrote a post about my experience at Disneyland. A mom impatiently explained to her daughter that she couldn’t be Snow White because she had brown skin. That moment chilled me because it appeared to me that the mother was setting arbitrary limits for her daughter. The subtext for me, probably not intended on the part of the mother, was that her daughter would never be beautiful because of the color of her skin, and for the same reason she could never be what she truly wanted to be in life. There weren’t any princesses that looked like that little girl, or my little girl, with brown skin, and I wanted that to change. Certainly there are bigger problems in the world, but to little girls, this is important.
Since then, Disney has taken several positive steps toward bringing greater diversity into its storytelling, and to the world of Disney princesses in particular. On the small screen it has introduced a new series with the first Latina princess: Elena of Avalor, a relatable teen with time management problems but great leadership skills when it really counts.
On the big screen Disney is charting a new course with Moana, the new epic celebrating Pacific Islander culture. Frozen set the standard for animated storytelling on a grand scale, and Moana brings similar magnitude to its epic tale. Like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, the movie is named for the titular character. Yet unlike these, Moana is probably the most fiercely independent Disney princess yet.
A relentless fighter in her quest to save her people, Moana doesn’t back down even in the face of alarming signs of blight on her island home, an intense thunderstorm at sea, or even a terrifying monster conjured from pure lava. While the story takes occasional turns into territory that could be seen as potential merchandising opportunities, overall the scenery is lush, and the princess discovering who she really is – a seafaring explorer and adventurer – is satisfying, sweet, and empowering for little girls.
Moana is a combination of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, two of the filmmakers Ron Clements and John Musker’s previous movies for Disney. At times viewers will recall the frenzied humor of Robin William’s genie from Aladdin in the form of Maui, an egotistical, shape-shifting demigod who indulges in rapid-fire, self-referential humor. Moana has echoes of the Little Mermaid with her desire pursue adventures on land —- Moana longs to conquer the sea, and she does, without fear of acknowledging her flaws.
Moana is a girl-empowering feast for the eyes this Thanksgiving. Disney has come a long way in acknowledging girls of every race, while also underscoring the many beautiful traits they have in common.