A few weeks ago I was able to meet Amy Smeed, the first female head of animation for Disney Animation Studios, and she shared with me a bunch of cool things about the upcoming animated film Moana. As she spoke (and shared a few top secret scenes), these are the five things that stood out to me that could make Moana not just an entertaining hit, but also an inspiration for our girls to dream big and expect equality in anything they do.
1. Moana’s body looks more realistic and youthful than other Disney characters.
Unlike some of the very womanly and curvy Disney ladies, Moana is athletic in build and looks more realistic. She’s beautiful and exudes light and energy, but in a youthful, 16-year-old way.
2. Moana’s character is written to be strong, kind, self-sacrificing, smart, and brave.
She loves animals and has a strong connection to nature. She also follows her heart and finds her calling despite what her dad thinks she should do. I don’t love the whole “not listening to your parents thing,” but I do believe one of the core principles of feminism is being able to choose your own path and not letting other people put restrictions on what you can do.
The writing credits include the two male directors, Ron Clements and John Musker; Jared Bush (Zootopia); Pamela Ribon (Samantha Who? and Bears); and New Zealand funnyman Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords and Hunt for the Wilderpeople). Along with having female and island representation, Disney also put together a group of experts, which they named The Oceanic Story Trust. The group included archeologists, anthropologists, tattoo masters, choreographers, weavers, fishermen, and sailors. They stayed in contact and ran ideas by them throughout the process to make sure they stayed as true as possible to the spirit and roots of Pacific Islanders. This blends into the next point…
3. Moana is voiced by 15-year-old Auli’i Cravalho — whose real-life fearlessness mimics the character.
Creating a character isn’t just about the words. Because the story of Moana is inspired by the oral histories of the Oceania people, it was important for Disney to find someone to voice Moana who also had Oceania roots. They auditioned hundreds of girls, but they ultimately went with Auli’i Crvalho.
One of the directors, John Musker liked Auli’i’s “fearlessness” and went on to explain that “her Polynesian background has helped shape her connection to family, hard work, and music.” Auli’i’s island heritage is from Hawaii. As we look for women to be represented in an honest and true way, it’s practical to tell our own stories through the characters we play. Auli’i also has another similarity to Moana: her age. Her 16th birthday is a few days before the release of the film.
4. Moana has no love interest.
Moana joins a short list of female Disney characters without a love interest. I can think of Elsa of Frozen and Merida of Brave. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for Disney’s charming love stories. Beauty and the Beast is one of my all-time favorite movies, but it’s great to see movies aimed at girls that don’t have to revolve around finding love. Romance is a powerful and entertaining thing, but family bonds and fighting for a good cause can be equally motivating. In Moana, she needs to save her people and accomplish a seemingly impossible task. It takes a girl who’s brave, inventive, and can “inspire” selfish Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) to work with her, which arguably is more important than whether she ends up with a guy — amiright?
5. Moana’s inspired to be her true self by her wise grandmother.
Speaking of family bonds, I love that Moana takes advice and is led to be her true self by her wise grandmother. Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House of Whale Rider), leads Moana to discover where her people come from, what that means to her, and the importance of following her instincts. Having respect for the women who blazed our paths and appreciating their wisdom and guidance is another thing that, for me, makes me a feminist. It isn’t about doing whatever I want, it’s about thoughtfully being a person that I want to be.
As you can see, I’m really excited to see the full movie. The artistic beauty of the animation looks unparalleled, and I’m always looking for entertainment that has authentic and substantive teaching moments to share with my kids. I hope Moana lives up to these lessons and helps the next generation of Disney fans be smart, strong, and unafraid to choose their own worthwhile path.
Check out Disney’s ‘Moana’ in theaters on November 23rd.