In 'Moana,' Disney sets sail with another female protagonist

Following in the steps of 'Frozen' and 'Maleficent,' Disney's 'Moana' will be a female-driven story

Walt Disney Animation Studios has officially shoved off on "Moana," offering a first look at the CG-animated adventure set in the South Pacific and slotting a late-2016 release date for the film.

Details of "Moana" are largely being kept under wraps, but one of the notable takeaways from the announcement Monday is that the movie will focus on — and indeed, be named after — a female protagonist.

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker ("The Little Mermaid," "The Princess and the Frog"), "Moana" is to tell the story of a spirited teenage girl and "born navigator" who sets sail in search of a fabled island in the ancient world of Oceania. Along the way, she teams up with a demigod named Maui and encounters mythical creatures and places.

"Moana" thus marks the latest in a string of Disney movies, animated and live-action, powered by strong female characters, including "Brave," "Frozen" and "Maleficent." (Those three films were all hits, grossing $539 million, $1.27 billion and $757 million worldwide, respectively; "Brave" and "Frozen" also won the Oscar for best animated feature.) Disney-owned Pixar (which made "Brave") has "Inside Out" coming in June as well. The film is set inside the mind of an adolescent girl.

These films all go back to the company's roots, though with a different tack.

Disney has historically of course been partial to female characters in its movies and merchandising. The massively popular lineup of "Disney princesses" comprises a long list of women, from the demure heroines of "Snow White" and "Cinderella" to the more adventurous types in "The Little Mermaid" (which kicked off the Disney Renaissance in 1989).

The modern films have further developed these adventurous aspects. "Brave" and "Frozen" focus on girls too, but, with archery and giant snow creatures, they break girl characters out of narrower boxes. Disney films in all eras show female characters with varying amounts of passive and active behavior, but the current crop is a lot more likely to send heroines on epic quests than have them sit around waiting for Prince Charming.

 In recent years, both Disney and Hollywood have come under fire for catering to young male audiences — say, with Disney's Marvel movies — at the expense of female moviegoers. But these characters dispel, or at least modulate, those assumptions. 

The shift is also, incidentally, helping Disney at the box office. Conventional Hollywood wisdom says that girls will go to see movies with young male protagonists, but boys won't do the same for movies about young women. (To wit: In 2010, after "The Princess and the Frog" underwhelmed at the box office, Disney executives concluded that having the word "princess" in the title scared off boys and renamed its next animated movie from "Rapunzel" to the gender-neutral "Tangled.")

But by Disney including these new elements in films such as "Brave" and "Frozen," the movies are playing to boys too, debunking the notion that female-driven movies can't jump the gender aisle.

Perhaps emboldened by its female-driven hits of late, Disney is embracing "Moana" and its adventure elements. "Moana is indomitable, passionate and a dreamer with a unique connection to the ocean itself," Musker said in a statement. "She's the kind of character we all root for, and we can't wait to introduce her to audiences."

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