A Polynesian protagonist? Disney, I’m sorry I doubted you.
Actually, scratch that. My faith in Disney’s integrity has been temporarily restored. For how long depends entirely on Moana. After the relative financial disappointment of The Princess and the Frog and the success of the racially homogenous Tangled and Frozen, I was genuinely concerned that Disney had lost interest in telling stories with non-white characters. However, news that Disney has been in pre-production on Moana, a movie about a Polynesian chief’s daughter who has to save her family, since 2011 proves otherwise.
It is really, really important for the future of Disney diversity that Moana be a financial and critical hit. Three elements are vital (in my mind) to Moana‘s success.
#1. Ethnological Accuracy
Moana better look like a real Polynesian woman, not some dark-skinned Barbie with the gigantic eyes and teeny nose we’ve seen so much recently or, um, Voldemort. I’m not sure animators realize how racist it is to fudge on ethnological accuracy. “You must have European features to be pretty,” is the implicit message. To be fair, the characters in Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear and The Princess and the Frog were ethnologically accurate … but the memory of Pocahontas’ impossibly pinched nose still gives me pause.
#2. Cultural Authenticity
From what little information is available, it certainly looks like Disney is doing its homework. According to babynames.com, the heroine’s name, “Moana,” is a Polynesian name meaning “ocean,” (which is thematically relevant to the plot) and the movie will feature demi-gods and spirits from Polynesian mythology. Disney is clearly trying here. It doesn’t look like Moana will take place in an Agrabah-like amalgamation of western notions about the Pacific Islands. However, Disney still has a history of cutting corners with cultural accuracy and the knowledge that Moana is being written and directed by two white men, Ron Clements and John Musker, doesn’t help.
#3. A Good Story
When all is said and done, Moana needs to be engaging. The reason Frozen was such a success was ultimately because it told an original, engrossing and emotionally moving story. If Moana is just another film about a princess yearning to defy tradition or follow her dreams … honestly, I’m already dozing off. It doesn’t matter how impressive the visuals are or how ethnologically, historically, mythologically and culturally accurate it is. If it doesn’t tell a story that’s worth telling, no one will remember it.
Moana is currently slated for a 2018 release.