Update on Disney’s Missing Mom Theory

The Myth of the Missing Mom – Disney’s (and Pixar’s) Canon (1937-2017)

The biggest thing that I have noticed about this myth in the past three years is how much Disney is not following it in its recent films. It definitely seems that they are making an effort to ensure that mothers are only portrayed as lost if the main character is an orphan. Remakes of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast still feature the lost mothers that their predecessors (and source material) did, while newcomer Big Hero 6 also features an orphaned main character. Three of these films feature a lost father as well, while newcomer The Good Dinosaur features a lost father with the main character’s mother still surviving. So as far as new films go, we’re tied at four apiece for lost parents.

Meanwhile, four of Disney/Pixar’s newest films feature protagonists with both living parents, seemingly bucking a trend. In total, only 15.5 Disney/Pixar films portray both living parents, whether or not said parents had any real bearing on the story.

But it has been said that Walt Disney had issues with his mother.  It has been said that writers could not adequately animate adult women.  It has been said that fairy tales are inherently misogynistic.  It has been said that if mothers were present in Disney movies, the heroes would not get much beyond the front door and never go on their adventure.

Regardless of the reason, it is still almost universally acknowledged that in nearly all of the films in the Disney/Pixar animated canon, the hero’s mother is missing.

However, time and again, only a few movies were cited: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Bambi (1942), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Beauty and the Beast (1991).  That’s only five of the more than fifty movies considered part of the Disney canon.  Why only the above five?

Back in 2014, I decided to test the theory of the missing mom on the entire list of the Disney Animated Canon (as per Wikipedia), as well as some associate films and the Pixar Animated Canon.

My conclusion?  See the title of this post: the “missing mom” is a mere myth, perpetuated by a few movies that support it and disregarding the rest of the family.

Check out the rest of my post from 2014 for the reasons why.

Updated numbers:

  • The number of films featuring dead mothers, including those that die during the story? 29.5 [There are really two protagonists in Tangled (2010), and only one of them is an orphan.]
  • The number of films featuring dead fathers, including those that die during the story? 31.5
  • Of the above, the number of films featuring orphaned protagonists? 20.5 (This includes such off-cited “dead mother” examples as Snow White and Cinderella.)
  • Thus, nine stories feature lost mothers alone, while eleven stories feature lost fathers alone.

With updates in bold, here is a list of the Disney and Pixar Animated Canons (excluding those wherein parents are basically irrelevant) and how they portray the heroes’ parents:

 

Film Mother Father Other Parental Figure(s) Reasoning Result
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepmother (antagonist) Source material Orphan

 

Pinocchio (1940) None (hero is a puppet) Alive Blue Fairy, Jiminy Cricket Source material No mother

 

Dumbo (1941) Alive Dead (backstory) n/a Source material; Elephants don’t marry Lost father
Bambi (1942) Dies in story Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Cinderella (1950) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepmother (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Alice in Wonderland (1951) Alive Alive n/a Source material
Peter Pan (1953) Alive Alive n/a Source material; Peter Pan is orphaned by choice
Lady and the Tramp (1955) Alive (adoptive) Alive (adoptive) n/a Source material; main character is a pet
Sleeping Beauty (1959) Alive Alive Father-in-law; Good Fairies Source material; Prince Philip’s missing mother is also true to setting Aurora has both parents; lost mother for Philip
101 Dalmatians (1961) Alive (Pongo) Alive (Perdita) Roger & Anita (dog owners) Source material; other puppies may have been orphans
The Sword in the Stone (1963) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepfather (antagonist) Source material Orphan
The Jungle Book (1967) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive animal parents Source material Orphan
The Aristocats (1970) Alive (adoptive) Unknown Heroine also a mother Source material; main character is a pet Lost father
Robin Hood (1973) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Nursemaid (ally) Source material; main character adult Orphan
The Fox and the Hound (1981) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive Source material; main character is a pet Orphan
The Great Mouse Detective (1986) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material; missing mother true to setting Lost mother
Oliver & Company (1988) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive owner Source material; main character is a pet Orphan
The Little Mermaid Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Beauty and the Beast Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Aladdin (1992) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Father-in-law True to setting Aladdin is an orphan; lost mother for Jasmine
The Lion King (1994) Alive Dies in story Adoptive parents Main characters are animals Lost father
Pocahontas (1995) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) Dies in story Dead (backstory) Stepfather (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Hercules (1997) Alive Alive n/a Departed from source material
Mulan (1998) Alive Alive n/a Source material
Tarzan (1999) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive mother Source material Orphan
Dinosaur (2000) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive parents Orphan
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Secondary protagonist & his wife True to setting; main characters are adults Orphan
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Main characters are adults Lost mother
Lilo & Stitch (2002) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory Older sister True to setting Orphan
Treasure Planet (2002) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) n/a Source material Orphan
Brother Bear (2003) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) n/a Source material Orphan
Chicken Little (2005) Alive Alive n/a
Meet the Robinsons (2007) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive family Orphan
The Princess and the Frog (2009) Alive Dies in story n/a Source material; true to setting Lost father
Tangled Mixed Mixed Adoptive mother (antagonist) Source material; true to setting Rapunzel has both parents; Flynn is an orphan
Frozen (2013) Dies in story Dies in story n/a Source material; true to setting Orphans
Big Hero 6 (2014) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Aunt; older brother; robot Source material Orphan
Zootopia (2016) Alive Alive n/a Main character is an adult  
Moana (2016) Alive Alive Grandmother    
Mary Poppins (1964) Alive Alive Nanny Source material
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive mother Source material Orphans
Enchanted (2007) Dead (backstory) Alive Stepmother; potential stepmother Lost mother
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Alive Dies in story n/a Main character is an adult Lost father
Cinderella (2015) Dies in backstory Dies in backstory Stepmother Source material Orphan
The Jungle Book (2016) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Animals Source material Orphan
Beauty and the Beast (2017) Dead (backstory) Alive   Source material Lost mother
Toy Story (1995) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
A Bug’s Life (1998) Alive Dead (backstory) n/a Main characters are insects Lost father
Toy Story 2 (1999) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
Finding Nemo (2003) Dies in story Alive n/a Main characters are animals Lost mother
The Incredibles (2004) Alive Alive n/a
Up (2009) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) Adoptive grandfather Main character is an adult Carl is orphaned due to age; lost father for Russell
Toy Story 3 (2010) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
Brave (2012) Alive Alive n/a
Inside Out (2015) Alive Alive n/a    
The Good Dinosaur (2015) Alive Dies in story   Main characters are dinosaurs Lost father
Finding Dory (2016) Alive Alive Foster father (Marlin) Main characters are animals Sorry to spoil the film!
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Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Lilo & Stitch was one of those films that I had heard a lot about, but had never gotten around to seeing. I knew the basic plot of the story and could remember the characters and their relationships to each other. (Yes, I know – there are lots of other things that one would think that I could occupy my brain with, but for some reason, remembering names and family relationships is something that I am good at.)  I knew that the film had several sequels and I admit that I am unfamiliar with those. Finally watching this film did not inspire me to watch the sequels, although I still might eventually. This was not because of the quality of the film, but rather because I felt that the story was complete. Watching Lilo and Stitch go on further adventures together would be fun, but not necessary at the moment.

So when browsing for films to watch that would be “fun, light-hearted, not-too-long, and uncomplicated”, I jumped on this one. If one plotted my watching of Disney films on a graph, the early 2000s would have been a low point, and I felt that I ought to check it off the list. I had also heard good things about it.

I was not disappointed, although I have to admit that for an adult, it was not entirely light-hearted. It was terrifying to think of how Lilo and her sister are orphaned and struggling to survive alone; how vulnerable they are; how much they have to lose if they are separated. Lilo already shows signs of acting out and I can’t imagine for a moment that she would have a good experience in a foster care situation. Nani, her teenaged sister and guardian, is struggling to find sustainable employment with few skills and while being a single parent. (I hope that she is done high school.) While many other adults in the town sympathize with her, they nonetheless see a teenager. As an adult, part of me thinks that giving up Lilo would be a positive thing, albeit not for Lilo’s sake, but for Nani’s.

In other words, were it not for the alien Stitch and the subplot about capturing him, this would have been a melodramatic story about two sisters dealing with the foster care system and poverty. Without Stitch, the story (as well as the actual characters) would not have survived as they did.

The fun, upbeat pacing of this film masks its dark nature, especially for children. I think this is a good thing – it keeps older audiences interested while softening reality for youngsters. No, most children who lose their parents do not get a space alien in their lives, but it does teach important lessons about family – namely, that family is about caring for each other and that members join our families in varying ways. (Landing from outer space is not usually one of them, as far as I know…) It is not about the size of one’s family – it’s about loving and sacrificing for each other.

What really sells this film is its humour, even in the face of adversity, and the physical comedy. It manages to make horrible situations (destruction of property, fires, etc.) into something to laugh at. After all, in such cases, there really isn’t anything else that one can do.

As indicated above, I don’t have any inclination to watch the rest of the Lilo & Stitch franchise because of this film, although I think I would be entertained by them if the opportunity arose. I am glad that I finally got around to watching this film so that I can actually say that I have seen it, rather than simply having read the Wikipedia synopsis. It was also a very enjoyable evening!

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Second Time is The Charm – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

The first time that I saw Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I was bored with it. I knew that it was supposed to be a comedy, but I found very little humour in it. It was not entertaining – it was like watching a lecture. The actors seemed to treat the play like it was sacrosanct and important. Even the clownish characters could not save it. Granted, this was a long time ago and perhaps my recollection is clouded by my being a teenager at the time, but I didn’t leave the theatre feeling like I had enjoyed the show. I think most of the audience had a similar reaction.

So I was both excited and dreading to see the play again! (In the meantime, I had seen part of the film version and had not really enjoyed it much either, but I think I might have simply missed most of it.) I am very glad that I did.

Unlike films or television shows, plays are never the same. Actors, directors, costumes, staging, and audiences change. Each version brings something different. This is especially true for Shakespeare’s plays, since they have been continuously adapted since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Whether it is changing musical styles, costume choices, the fact that women now actually play female roles (and often male or androgynous ones as well), or setting updates, the experience for the audience keeps changing.

Most importantly, directors and actors need to remember that Shakespeare intended for his comedies to be funny! To be sure, they were not supposed to be outright slapstick, but Twelfth Night is more reminiscent of a sitcom than anything else.

Luckily, this time, I felt like I was watching such a show! The actors interacted with the audience (even if it was simply shrugging their shoulders helplessly) and played their parts in a suitably over-the-top fashion. There was music that the audience could clap along to and it was clear that everyone was supposed to be having a good time. Well, except for a couple of characters who are the butt of a lot of jokes, but such is the nature of sitcoms.

Honestly, does this not sound like the plot for a sitcom? Two teenagers – a male/female twin pair, no less – get stranded and each think the other one is dead. The girl dresses as a boy to get a job and ends up falling in love with her boss, who is interested in a wealthy young heiress who won’t give him the time of day. Her boss sends his errand “boy” – whom he is finding uncomfortably attractive – to talk to the heiress (also a teenager, in all likelihood), but she ends up falling in love with the errand boy instead, much to the latter’s distaste. Then, to complicate matters, the twin brother shows up in town! Plus, there is an amusing sideplot involving the heiress’s servants, her drunken uncle, and her uncle’s foppish drinking buddy.

Really, this is not a plot to take too seriously. It is supposed to be light entertainment that the audience can follow along and figure out exactly what is going to happen next. Just because it is classic literature doesn’t mean it is to be performed devoid of life!

Thankfully, Twelfth Night has been redeemed for me.

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More Historical Mayhem – Shakespeare’s Richard III

If I felt sorry for Macbeth, at least that play was a fantasy and about a medieval king – Shakespeare was as far removed from Macbeth as we are from Shakespeare. By comparison, Richard III is outright slander and political propaganda, albeit an entertaining one. It was about uniting for a common cause, which was imperative in the late 1500s when England was facing attacks from Spain. It was about how the Tudor dynasty was a positive influence – insofar as it put an end to infighting for a century. That was likely more due to a lack of other contenders for the throne once Richard III was dead. (Had he had a living legitimate son, or had Edward V or his younger brother been still alive, the civil wars would have continued.)

But Richard III is not about being accurate – it is both a rousing play meant to bolster English nationalism (such as nationalism was in the sixteenth century) and a character study of the villain protagonist. For while Richard is a villain, he is certainly an entertaining and charismatic one. One almost wants to see him succeed, even as the body count gets higher.

Richard as a villain is indeed the main reason why anyone would want to watch the play. There is little else in the way of plot. This is not to say that it does not transcend its historical subject, for it does. Richard III is a tale of political intrigue, double-speak, murder, and war. Unlike Macbeth, Richard is realistic and modern. We can see many a politician in him – and we can hope that some of our contemporaries suffer a fall as great as his at the hand of someone as apparently as noble as Henry VII.

I say Richard is realistic in that he is relatable and there are nothing supernatural – or even mentally unstable – about him. That is perhaps chilling in how normal he seems. However, he is not realistic in how his namesake truly was. Partway through the play, Richard makes a big show of being a reluctant, humble, pious, and dutiful man when the nobles come to proclaim him the new king. This is done in the story as a ruse, but it is closer to how he was in life. – there was little evidence to the contrary.

In fact, there is no evidence that Richard murdered his nephews at all. It is just as likely that the young princes died of illness (they were confined in the Tower, after all – but just as likely for their own protection, as the Tower was still partially a palace at the time) or were murdered on someone else’s orders. At the time, Richard only had one legitimate son – and he also died at a young age. The whole scandal is certainly dramatic, but unfounded.

But that is not the point of the play at all. Shakespeare’s audiences wanted action and drama. They got that. Shakespeare wanted to write a play that would please his royal patron (always a good idea to make the Queen’s grandfather look excellent, even if at the expense of her great-great-uncle) and that would inspire audiences in the face of a national crisis.

What is genius about Shakespeare’s play is that everything about it looks true at the outset. The events take place roughly as they did in life, or were believed to have taken place in life, but are twisted to follow the narrative of the greedy and villainous Richard. It is easy to see how tempting it is to think that he is telling the truth.

If this were a tragedy, it would be a boring play, as only the character of Richard is all that compelling. However, to contemporary audiences who would have had more awareness of the events, it is not about what is going to happen next, but how. They knew Richard was going to die in the same way that modern audiences knew the Titanic was going to sink, but watched the film anyhow.

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Historical Fantasy – Shakespeare’s Macbeth

While I studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth in school, I hadn’t yet until recently seen the play performed. It is apparently Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, which is perhaps why it has been popular for the past few centuries. Unlike some of his plays, there are no sideplots or intricate webs of deception. There is simply one overarching story – that of Macbeth’s gradual descent into madness and tyranny, and that of those valiant and angry enough to put an end to his reign and put the rightful king back on the throne.

Insofar as this is based on history, about the only accurate parts of it are the names of the characters and that it takes place in Scotland. The real Macbeth ruled for ten years, showed no sign of madness, and was by all contemporary accounts a good king. Duncan was not murdered and Malcolm was no saint. (In fact, his self-deprecating speech to MacDuff in the play is rather apt to his historical character, even if it was meant in the play to be a trick.) As far as is now known, Banquo is a likely fictional character – although Shakespeare’s sources stated otherwise. Like many historical facts from the eleventh century, the actual truth on that is unknown. It could very well be that King James I had an ancestor called Banquo who was contemporary to Macbeth, but there is no evidence.

However, Macbeth is a fanciful tale of intrigue, suspense, fairies/witches, and swordfights. It does its job to entertain, even with humourous interludes not often found in tragedies. These interludes and in-jokes would definitely have made more sense in 1606 when the play was first performed – the political commentary has not aged well at all, as not even the most savvy of historians can catch them. However, everyone can appreciate a drunken porter commentating on the effects of alcohol or witches relishing all of the nasty ingredients that they add to their potion.

Since the play requires a few large action scenes, having a small troupe of actors can make it difficult not to seem comedic. However, the script is fairly vague about stage directions, so what actors and directors choose to do to get around this problem is largely up each production. Having the characters move on- and offstage in rapid sequence is one good method to keep the dramatic tension high. Embracing some of the implicit comedy never hurts either, especially considering how mad Macbeth has supposedly become. (In the version that I saw, Macbeth demands that his servant give him his armour, only to be handed a tin of face-paint. Macbeth paints one line on his face and then hands it back to the servant. I thought it was hilarious, since Macbeth is so far agone that he cannot make any proper decisions. The look on the servant’s face was priceless.)

Overall, the plot of the play is Macbeth being tempted by witches and his wife to kill the king and usurp the throne of Scotland, against his own better judgement. Elizabethan (or Jacobean, to be precise) audiences would have laughed at the “don’t listen to women” cautionary tale. Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind the story and rather inexplicably decides to push her husband to commit regicide. To show her madness and incompetence, she ends up killing herself while her husband dies honourably (sort of) in battle. Modern audiences may find this appalling, but it was as common of a storytelling device for the era as the bumbling dad or the sexy lady mechanic is to ours. One of the reasons that it was popular? James I had recently come to power after a long reign by Elizabeth I. The king was Shakespeare’s new patron and the play was about making him look good. Also, for many, having a man back on the throne felt like a restoration of the “natural order”, even if said man was Scottish.

Macbeth combines elements of history, tragedy, and fantasy to tell a riveting story when done well. Its fantastical elements lend it to being more interesting than the straight-up histories. After so many years, Shakespeare was trying new ideas and even parodying himself. It is certainly entertaining.

But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the actual Macbeth!

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Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)

Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)

Facing the double-strike of being an adaptation of a novel that would be considered well-written professional fan fiction, Death Comes to Pemberley could have failed miserably. Instead, the BBC miniseries of P.D. James’s 2011 novel of the same name feels every bit as though it belongs in the Jane Austen canon. One could be forgiven for thinking that it was indeed authentic.

This is party due to the BBC’s wonderful ability to bring literature to life. They do their research when it comes to costuming, props, and architecture. They know how to adapt Jane Austen novels and thus they know how to make a story look and feel like a Jane Austen novel. Nothing about this story felt like a modern mystery thriller. There was a bit more angst than there would be in Austen, but it still fit with the characters that she created. The story was a good blend of 20th century relationship analysis amid early 19th century life. Austen’s audiences would have had different expectations than audiences in the 2010s, so the miniseries and its source novel fulfill our expectations, not those of the past.

As for how well the miniseries adapts the novel, I felt that it did an adequate job. There were a few noticeable details that were changed to streamline the plot and keep the cast down – such as only giving the Darcys one young son instead of two. The mystery was kept intact. It has been five years since I read the book, so I will have to reread it to catch any major changes – overall, the plot was the same and the characters every bit as they were in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, albeit a few years older.

Which brings me to how well the story is a continuation of Austen’s novel. Pride and Prejudice ends fairly happily and there are lots of story threads to follow. Austen basically ties them off and ends her book. In the subsequent years, several writers have penned novels and short stories continuing the lives of the characters. What I enjoy of Death Comes to Pemberley is the format. It is a murder mystery set at Pemberley a few years after the end of Austen’s novel. As such, it is a bit darker in tone, but also features our now mostly-happily married Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy investigating crime and dealing with their married life. It is refreshing to see them work together as a couple. Historical romance tends to sideline the already-married characters, but as a mystery, this story can keep focusing on our favourite pair.

Most importantly, P.D. James strives to write in a style as close to Austen as she could muster. The opening chapter, wherein she basically gives a recount of Austen’s story and the intervening few years following, feels exactly like and early 19th century novel. James finds Austen’s voice and maintains it for the narrative portions of the novel. She also does not take too many liberties with the characters. Even the Darcys, whom we spend the most time with and who are developed the most, still maintain authenticity. Darcy is still preoccupied with duty and honour, balancing that with following his heart; Elizabeth is still headstrong, clever, and kindhearted. They still love each other, but not in an overly obnoxious way. Like many couples, daily life preoccupies them. The mystery has the potential to bring them closer or drive them apart.

In a nutshell, Death Comes to Pemberley is a good sequel because it is both different than its predecessor while maintaining the atmosphere and characters that audiences loved about the original story. Like the author herself, it should appeal to fans of mysteries as well as fans of Jane Austen (or historical romance in general), but particularly those who are fans of both.death comes to Pemberley

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Moana (2016)

This film had been on my “get around to watching” list since its release last November, so with it being summer and with me getting my ocean fix, it seemed like the perfect time to watch Disney’s Moana.

Perhaps to get as far away from their last princess film, Disney set this story in the South Pacific. Instead of snow, we got ocean. (Although both involved protagonists with supernatural connections to water…) In a radical departure from previous “princess” stories, there was no romance at all. Even Brave contained an element of romance, in that chieftains’ sons were supposed to be competing for Merida’s hand. Moana is just about Moana and her heroics. The film is about finding one’s place, following one’s calling, and figuring out what the “right thing” to do is (and then how to accomplish it). There is indeed love – love for family, home, and community; love for the environment; and love for one’s heritage.

The age of Moana, our teenage heroine, is unspecified, but she seems to be about fourteen. In other words, she is not too young for romance entirely, but too young for modern audiences to identify with a realistic romantic storyline for her. That would have been a different film and we might have enjoyed it in the right historical context, but it would not have resonated with viewers. Thankfully, we got this film instead!

Moana is chosen when she is still a small child by the ocean itself to restore balance to the islands. Meanwhile, she is also heir to her father in a long line of chiefs. Her people have decided to remain on their current island because it seems to be safe, even though the environment is getting worse and unsustainable. Moana’s father discourages her love of the ocean and teaches her how to follow in his footsteps. Rather than simply exhibiting youthful rebellion, Moana chooses to do as is expected of her and it is only out of a love and concern for her people’s wellbeing and future that she eventually defies her father and sets off on her adventure.

There is still plenty of escapism to be had, but Disney has done well with creating a family film that is magical and inspiring while still being relatable. It is a fairy tale, but the ending is not “and they lived happily ever after” – although it could be implied, the story is the one that every young person has to go through from childhood to adulthood. Growing up is not an ending.

Moana gets to go on a heroic quest – a job usually reserved for males in these types of stories. Her character could have been a boy and there would be little change needed for the plot to work. In fact, nothing would have been different. It is nice to see a girl playing the every-person figure. Moana is not special because she is female – she is special because she is the hero. Boys and girls should theoretically both be able to identify with her and her quest.

That said, having environmental balance being restored by a woman makes a lot of poetic sense. Nonetheless, it is not discussed in the film. Moana is simply on her quest. A male version of her could have theoretically completed it. I am not complaining though – heroines in their own right are needed and Moana is a wonderful example.

The characters, scenery, and music in the film are wonderful. The story is timeless, albeit very timely. This is not my new favourite, but it is not one I will relegate to the “not bothering to see again” list. (One of the luxuries of no children is having such a list.)

And yes, I will eventually watch it in French as well.

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