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Moana is Disney's newest animated musical about the adventures of a princess. Sort of. Disney has been practicing this formula for decades, but their newest entry in the franchise actually throws the standard formula out the window. Make no mistake, Moana will join the sorority of Disney Princesses and be a welcome addition to the group in many ways. However, what makes this film truly special are the ways in which Moana takes your expectations and then does something utterly unexpected with them.
While Moana isn't the first Disney princess to break character, she does it in some new and special ways. While some of the changes to formula are minor, others are substantial. Here are just a few of the things that don't show up in Moana like they do in most Disney princess movies. There are minor spoilers, so you MIGHT not want to read if you haven't yet seen the film.
Moana Has Two Living Parents
If you're a Disney Princess, there's a really god chance that one or both of your parents are dead. Most likely, it's your mother. Then, because mom is not around, you and your father have serious disagreements. This is what starts much of the conflict in movies like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. In Moana, however, both of the girls' parents are alive and they stay that way for the entire movie. It may seem like a minor detail but it's important because of how it impacts what comes next.
Moana Doesn't Really Rebel
One of the common themes, especially among the modern Disney princesses, is that the main conflict arises from the princess's desire for something other than the life they've been born into. Ariel, Belle, Rapunzel and Merida all fall into this category. While there is an element of this in Moana, she wants to sail beyond the reef, ultimately it's not her rebellion that leads to this taking place.
Quite the contrary, by the end of the first big song, Moana hasn't merely accepted her "destiny" as the future chief, she's clearly embraced it. She really does love the place where she is and the people she lives with. It's to protect them that she eventually gets to leave. This internal conflict is what makes Moana truly unique. She doesn't want to reject her place in her society, she actively wants both things, and that makes her more complex than many princesses.
There Is No Romance
The vast majority of Disney princess movies are about girls falling in love. Even the ones that aren't built entirely around that idea, like Mulan, still have it as a subplot, and even Frozen used it as a major plot point, in order to take a critical look at the idea. Moana doesn't even bring up the concept. At no point do Moana's parents even mention that she might, at some point, meet somebody. Her relationship with the only other major "human" character, Maui, is purely one of colleagues with a common interest, and then friends. Moana doesn't do what she does to save one person she loves, she does it to save everybody. Falling in love is awesome, but it isn't necessary to have a complete life.
It's A True Hero's Journey
The concept of the hero's journey is a well discussed and well-understood concept in storytelling that has been used for centuries and in more movies than we can count, however, it's never really been part of the narrative structure in Disney's animated films. While you could certainly argue that many Disney princesses go on a hero's journey, it's never been as clearly structured as it is in Moana. In an odd way, reverting to this classic structure brought new life to the film simply because Disney had never used it in this way before.