Since kicking off its legacy in animated films, Walt Disney Studios has been associated with fairytale princesses — 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the studio’s first feature-length movie, after all. Over the years, Disney princesses have taken on certain recognizable characteristics: many times, they’re damsels in distress; they’re kind, nurturing, and the epitome of femininity; they’ve generally lost at least one parent if not both (or their sole remaining parent isn’t necessarily up to the task); and, most importantly, their stories tend to focus on love.
Although the early princesses — Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty (whose name is actually Aurora) — especially embody this archetype, the films of the Disney Renaissance included many of these same tropes. Ariel of The Little Mermaid changes herself (and makes a deal with a sea-witch) to win over Prince Eric; Belle’s kindness and empathy in Beauty and the Beast changes the Beast back into a prince; Jasmine’s hand in marriage drives the main plot of Aladdin; Pocahontas‘ story was changed from history to include a romance with John Smith.
Certainly, movies such as Mulan and Brave have somewhat broken the Disney mold in giving their heroines more agency — though the latter is a Pixar release and arrived well after the Disney Renaissance. But while both movie seemed to buck many characteristics of the Disney Princess archetype, they did contain elements of romantic love and marriage. Mulan does fall in love with Li Shang, and Merida is motivated in Brave by her desire not to be married off to the heir of an allied clan.
In fact, in recent years Walt Disney Studios has been working to subvert many of the tropes established in their earlier films, and doubled down on during the Disney Renaissance. Movies such as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen — essentially all of the princess-focused features since the studio’s renaissance — have worked to develop their storylines more beyond the romantic aspect. That said, the second of this year’s Mouse House releases, Moana, goes further than any other Disney or Pixar film yet in breaking free from the princess archetype.
Kicking off the latest generation of Disney Princesses, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog introduced Tiana, the hardworking and ambitious daughter of a seamstress and a soldier. However, though Tiana’s storyline focuses much more on her desire to own a restaurant, the film undoubtedly has a romantic element — and Tiana winds up a princess through her marriage with Naveen. Similarly, 2010’s Tangled is as much about Rapunzel’s journey to find the paper lanterns (and her parents, the king and queen) as it is the relationship between the princess and the thief Flynn Rider. So, while both movies make a point of giving the heroines more complex arcs, their stories still heavily rely on romantic love.
Prior to Moana’s release this fall, Frozen was perhaps the film to most subvert the Disney Princess tradition since the movie took its archetypal prince character, Hans, and revealed him to be the villain. Instead, the true love in the film is the familial bond between Anna and Elsa — established when Elsa saves her sister from the dangerous effects of her magic. That said, even Frozen includes a fairytale romance of sorts between Anna and Kristoff, who wind up together in the end.
However, Moana doesn’t feature any sort of romantic arc for the film’s titular character. Rather, the latest Disney movie tells the story of Moana Waialiki, the daughter of a chief who is raised to take over leadership of their village on the Oceanic island of Motunui. But, when a darkness begins to consume her island, Moana goes on a journey to free the demigod Maui, retrieve his magical hook, and restore the heart of the ancient goddess Te Fiti. Along the way, Moana forms a friendship with Maui and gains an understanding not only of what she’s capable of, but who she truly is.
As in Tangled and Frozen, the main characters have certainly come a long way in being more complex than the one-dimensional kind, feminine princesses of early Disney films. Moana continues this trend by establishing a protagonist that is flawed; she is kind and devoted to her people, but she’s stubborn and unsure of herself at times, as well. Additionally, though Moana is saved by Maui at certain points in the film, more often than not, the character either saves herself through her own skill and resourcefulness, or she saves Maui.
Not included in Moana, though, is a romantic interest, despite the fact that so many animated movies — and every single Disney Princess film preceding Moana — incorporate a romance storyline. In fact, the subject of marriage is never even broached in Moana. In many Disney movies — including Pocahontas, Mulan, and Brave — the heroine is either engaged through an arrangement set up by her parents, or in the process of finding a match, when viewers first meet her. But, though Moana is groomed by her (still alive and well) mother and father to take over as the village chief one day, marriage is not mentioned — not even to establish Moana needn’t be married to be chief.
Instead, in what is perhaps a more powerful depiction of a dynamic female character, Moana simply presents the protagonist as a capable and fully-formed person without a romantic interest. Moana is capable of serving as chief of her village without a romantic partner; she’s capable of journeying across the sea with a demigod, restoring an ancient goddess’s heart, and rescuing her village — all without falling in love. It is an unprecedented alteration in the Disney Princess tradition, and a rarity in Hollywood as a whole.
Rather than add in a romance subplot (one that would likely feel out of place in the film), Disney focused on the personal journey Moana takes. Speaking to Screen Rant about Moana, star Auli’i Cravalho pinpointed the universal, non-romantic theme of the film:
The main theme, I think, of Moana is the journey that she goes on. And I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. Perhaps not the journey of a hundred miles across the sea, but the journey of finding herself, and solidifying herself in that. And that’s so important.
Of course, the coming-of-age tale included in Moana is one of the standard arcs found across every kind of media through which stories are told. While romantic love can be an important aspect of any coming-of-age movie, if the main character is female, her arc will almost always either be focused on romantic love or include some form of romance storyline — whether the film is animated or not. Moana’s lack of love interest for the movie’s titular heroine is not only a step forward for Disney, but film in general.
That said, in many ways Moana follows Disney tradition: It sticks to a basic story structure (in this case, one modeled after The Hero’s Journey), includes an animal sidekick as comedic relief, and features a wise old woman mentor to the female protagonist in Moana’s grandmother Tala, among others. Furthermore, the character herself is even positioned as a princess. But, even in the simple aspect of Moana’s role as the chief’s daughter being similar to that of a princess, the Mouse House’s latest offering differentiates itself.
On more than one occasion throughout her relationship with Maui, the demigod refers to Moana as a princess — but, each time, she rebuffs his nickname for her and points out that she is the daughter of a chief, not a princess. Though this isn’t the first case of a Disney heroine being the daughter of a ruler without being a princess (that honor belongs to Pocahontas), Moana makes it a point to distinguish herself as the daughter of a chief — differentiating the character from other Disney Princesses.
Altogether, Moana is a different kind of Disney Princess movie, one that bucks the studio’s female protagonist conventions and subverts the archetype established in the Mouse House’s early years and Renaissance era. Disney has been criticized over the years for its movies portraying unrealistic female characters as well as imply romantic love and/or marriage is integral to a woman’s happiness. But, Moana is proof that the studio’s characters can be realistic and relatable, while going on a journey focused completely on themselves rather than entirely or in part on a romantic interest.
Of course, longtime Disney fans may worry about Moana’s lack of romance straying too far from the studio’s classic fairytale romances. That said, Moana is still a quintessential animated Disney musical — complete with a catchy soundtrack, quirky characters, and completely lovable leads in Moana and Maui. So, while Moana may not be a typical animated feature, it is important in the fact that it subverts many tropes of the Disney Princess franchise — and it’s a fun movie, to boot.
Moana is in theaters now.