Watching Moana this week with my seventeen-month old, I’m reminded of when I first saw it in theaters with my nieces and nephews: I was thrilled at the prospect of Pacific Islanders being spotlighted and honored (albeit in a bit of an amalgamated way), and yet I also felt the dread of the anticipated romance that those of my generation have been programmed to expect from Disney films. So when Moana and Maui found themselves on a quest to renew the Heart of Te Fiti, alone on a seafaring canoe with only a barely-present chicken to offset the duo, I cringed at the likelihood that yet another Disney movie would perpetuate romance for our children and ourselves. I was more than delighted that did not end up to be the case. So, in honor of a movement toward more forward-thinking that has graced Disney films in recent years, I would like to highlight some of my favorite moments/characters that make me proud to tear up at nearly every Disney scene. And to start at number one, Moana and Maui's non-romantic relationship.
It’s almost silly that we need to applaud the absence of romance, but glad for a refreshing change in a Disney movie all the same.
Apparently Elsa was supposed to be the villain of Frozen, but the writers changed her storyline to match her empowering "Let It Go" anthem. Without that change-up, we would have been stuck in yet another storyline loop of yet another powerful woman being portrayed as someone to fear and villainize. Now we have a badass hero.
3. The Lion King
It wasn’t until the live action version of The Lion King that I finally realized what Timon was stopping Pumbaa from saying in "Hakuna Matata"—fart. I cannot believe all these years it was something so apparent that I never caught, but also, I mean, that sort of humor isn’t my thing. But at least the writers finally saw no reason to shame such a natural body function.
4. The Emperor’s New Groove
The Emperor's New Groove features Chicha, who not only was the first pregnant Disney character, but also the first mother who was not killed off or villainized. Yikes. But, again, Disney writers chose to move past the script of women and mothers not being present either due to death or due to denigration. Curious, to be sure….
5. The Princess and the Frog
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Tiana of The Princess and the Frog was left-handed. It’s absurd that there’s even a stigma in place for being left-handed, thus why showcasing a character who's left-handed is important since right-handedness is often still viewed as “right”.
6. The Little Mermaid
This one is an oldie but a goodie: Ursula was inspired by drag queen phenomena Divine. This is also a bit problematic since, yes, Ursula was a villain, thereby vilifying LGBTQIA+ folk. But I also try to see the win in the writers honoring the spirit of Divine with some big Queen attitude.
The scene with Officer Specter in Onward has been greatly debated on whether it is a win or not for LGBTQIA+ folk. On one hand, it's seen as performative allyship. On the other it's commended for not calling attention to Specter's queerness and just letting them be them in the simple line of "My girlfriend's daughter got me pulling my hair out."
8. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of the best gems of Disney cinema, IMHO. And Milo Thatch is such a perfect divergent display of the arguable “typical” Disney masculine archetype.
9. The Little Mermaid
Price Eric of The Little Mermaid was the first price to be saved by a princess, and thereby setting the stage for a bit of a gender role reversal.
10. Lilo and Stitch
I save this for last since it has yet to be directly confirmed, but some believe that Lilo of Lilo and Stitch is autistic. Representation of neurodiversity is so important for our young ones, so even if it’s not outright in this case, the complexities of Lilo's character demonstrate that every way we are is perfectly in line with who we are.