Moana is the Disney princess movie everyone needs right now—or, at the very least, Moana is the princess I've been dreaming of since I was a little girl. Not every kindergartner can see herself in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or, even nowadays, Frozen.
After years of witnessing people of color gunned down and beaten on-screen, having a whole movie dedicated to showcasing the knowledge and beauty of brown people felt restorative. Yes, Moana is an animated children's movie, but it is important for children of color to be able to see movie audiences sit in awe of their people's stories. Representation matters regardless of age. And Walt Disney Studios is finally wising up and taking that message to heart—just look at The Princess and the Frog, Big Hero 6, or the recent Queen of Katwe.
The film focuses on Moana Waialiki (Auli'i Cravalho), the teenage daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) of the fictional Montunui island in Polynesia. From the second Moana can toddle around her homeland, she is deeply fascinated with the ocean—probably because her father wants to keep her away from it (she is a teenage girl). Her kooky-sweet paternal Gramma Tala (Rachel House), however, knows better and encourages Moana to go beyond the reef and remind her people that they're the descendants of voyagers who once traversed the great ocean beyond.
When a foretold famine sweeps the island and threatens their food supply, Gramma Tala gives her granddaughter a glowing green stone, the Heart of Te Fiti, the legendary goddess turned literal island, which was stolen by Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a mischievous demigod. In a touching scene, Moana's mother, Sina (Nicole Scherzinger)—a female character who, frustratingly, has only a meager handful of lines—helps her daughter pack food and supplies while her father tends to his own sickly mother. Like so many brown and islander mothers, including my own, Sina makes the hard decision to let her daughter make her own way in the world.
After crash-landing on a rocky island, Moana finds and befriends Maui, who teaches her to sail her canoe and fights at her side—sometimes with the girl leading the way—against coconut-masked pirates and a giant treasure-hungry crab that all want to steal away her precious stone. For Moana, the stone means everything: her home, her people, and the fate of her world.
This longing is woven through the film with "How Far I'll Go," Moana's anthem of hope and nervousness. The song is heard when the heroine questions whether she truly is the right person to save her people. (I'll throw a fit if it doesn't make the Academy Awards shortlist for best original song.) Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway musical Hamilton fame is, unsurprisingly, behind a handful of the songs on the score—and the studio couldn't have picked a better person for the job. While some of his compositions are jokey (The Rock's fabulously sung "You're Welcome," for instance), others offer a compelling call for unity and remind us that small Moana has a place in the big world.
Moana's sweeping landscapes—midnight skies dotted with stars and the swirling galaxy, the expansive ocean surrounding Moana's island home, the dizzying peaks of rocky archipelagos—show us the incomprehensible bigness of our world. Our heroine, Moana, is constantly aware of the fact that she is a speck, albeit an important speck, in the cosmos. As her family and ancestors have taught, fighting for what's right can feel like a lonely battle, but no work is every truly done alone. Clearly, Moana's message is more important now than ever before.