Not long after the titular hero of Moana meets the demigod Maui, we get a meta joke about Disney’s long-standing tradition of telling stories about young women. The self-absorbed Maui has no interest in helping Moana, who has defied her father, the chief, and crossed the reef to find him. He hurls a litany of dismissive insults at her, including “princess,” much to her chagrin. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” he adds, referring to her rooster Hei Hei, “you’re a princess.”
Yet for all of Moana’s superficial connections to prior Disney princesses, there are plenty of deliberate breaks from that tradition that make her stand out—especially in the movie’s depiction of Pacific Islander culture and the complete absence of a love interest. Moana, with its multicultural creative team and message about honoring one’s ancestors, is trying to present a world that the studio, and Hollywood more generally, tends to ignore or treat poorly. In doing so, it confirms that, in the years since the uber-feminist megahit Frozen, Disney has entered into its third golden age, one in which progressivism and a commitment to inclusion are not only powerful artistic decisions but profitable business ones.
The first golden age of Disney animation features began, of course, with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the film that laid groundwork for both Disney and the filmmaking industry at large. Its truly innovative employment of Technicolor, the multiplane camera, and musical storytelling would lead to other artistic and technical triumphs—the naturalistic forest and animal life in Bambi; the symphonic, almost entirely dialogue-free Fantasia.
The Disney Renaissance, as it’s been dubbed, followed a deeply fallow period in the ’70s and most of the ’80s, and began in earnest with The Little Mermaid. The movies that followed—including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King—took their cues from musical theater, with composers like Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Stephen Schwartz writing catchy, classic songs for the movies’ performers to croon. The box office was record-breaking, critics loved the films, and Beauty and the Beast even scored the first Best Picture Oscar nomination for an animated film.
But the films’ depictions of women and people of color left much to be desired. Belle is often cited, correctly, as the studio’s first real stab at creating a feminist character, in large part because she is book-smart and dreams of more than her provincial life. Linda Woolverton, the first woman to write a Disney animated film, has said she fought (sometimes successfully and sometimes not) to create in Belle a female character that “isn’t based on being kind and taking the hits but smiling all the way through it”—and indeed she was a significant improvement upon Snow White, Cinderella, and even the mute-by-choice Ariel just two years earlier. Still, in the end, Belle’s dreams get sidelined for the chance to transform the Beast into a better man. Later good-intentioned attempts in the ’90s to tell stories of nonwhite characters didn’t always turn out so well: Pocahontas succumbs to some very easy stereotypes (the “good Indian” vs. “bad Indian”) and wildly inaccurate historical interpretations. And Mulan and Aladdin had their own problems.
In the decades following the renaissance, Disney had a few modest hits and made strides toward inclusiveness (see 2009’s The Princess and the Frog). But it was Frozen in 2013 that marked a turning point for how Disney told its stories—and sold them, with the company aggressively and consistently attempting to attract a more diverse and more socially conscious audience. Frozen’s Prince Charming–turned-villain and its explicit elevation of sisterhood over hetero romance felt revolutionary in the context of a Disney fairy tale. The critically acclaimed Big Hero 6 was a dazzling, multicultural superhero movie with an implicitly biracial protagonist; the film takes place in the fictional futuristic world of San Fransokyo, a kind of canny East-West hybrid. Earlier this year, the makers of Zootopia pulled off a clever trick by keeping its promotion for the film extremely vague—only to surprise audiences with a film about a female bunny rabbit pursuing a career in the police force that was also, not so subtly, an allegory for racial profiling. All three of these films were huge successes both critically and commercially: They each scored higher than 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and together they earned an average worldwide gross of about a billion dollars. In terms of both box office and reviews, that’s an even stronger record over the last three years than Pixar’s.
And now we have Moana, with its multicultural voice cast and creative team (Dwayne Johnson as Maui, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana; Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i as two of the film’s composers). Disney went to great lengths to avoid gross stereotyping, with animators visiting the South Pacific several times and establishing the “Oceanic Story Trust,” a collective made up of scholars and native people who were consulted throughout the process. (This is more than what can be said for Aladdin—it’s hard to imagine anyone of Middle Eastern descent was consulted on the now-erased lyric, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”) The film’s devotion to community and reverence for ancestors feel as carefully drawn as the vivid tattoos covering not just Maui but Moana’s grandmother.
Of course, no matter how good the films are, Disney is not perfect. The ostensibly inclusive and feminist Moana has four directors, with nary a woman or person of color among them. Zootopia’s world-building metaphor for racial discrimination doesn’t really hold up all that well when you think about it too hard. Frozen’s “Let It Go” makeover remains misguided. But for the most part, these four movies have managed to sidestep a lot of the issues of female and racial representation to which previous Disney films have fallen victim, at a time when audience demand for diversity in its storytelling is keener than ever.
And thanks in great part to abandoning the simplistic, one-dimensional fairy tales in which girl meets boy and lives happily ever after, Disney’s been telling richer, more complex stories that aim to reach both kids and adults in a way that hadn’t been the case for some time. The third golden era of Disney captures the magic of the studio’s greatest hits while stepping more fully into the 21st century. The next original film on Disney’s slate is 2018’s Gigantic, an adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk set in Spain, and early word on the film’s premise suggests Disney is not abandoning its current M.O. anytime soon: Jack helps a female giant named Inma find her way back home, and, as Deadline reported earlier this year, “encounters an entire world of giants from lots of different cultures” at the top of the beanstalk. Based on what we’ve seen from the studio these past few years, it seems likely the filmmakers will find some way to inject some sharp progressive politics (and maybe even finally include some LGBTQ characters?) into its latest take on a tale as old as time.