‘Moana’ Is Just the Latest Feminist, Progressive Disney Hit

The box office success of “Moana” confirms Disney’s status atop the pecking order of major studios.

It owes its apex predator status to the way it has deftly bolstered and built on the power of its suite of cinematic brands, as well as its ability to create stories featuring diverse protagonists that reflect the changing face of the moviegoing public.

Moana” is the latest Disney film to be based on a strong female protagonist. Though the studio has long featured women in lead roles dating as far back as 1937’s “Snow White,” and has minted money from its “Princess Collection” of consumer products, its female characters have adopted a more assertive and empowered stance over the past few decades. Whereas earlier Disney heroines waited around for their prince to come and save the day, Moana takes it upon herself to embark on a perilous oceanic voyage in order to lift her island home from a curse. It’s the kind of adventuring that would have been left for the guys in Disney films of yore.

In another feminist twist, “Moana” is one of the first animated films not to feature a love story. Her journey is about finding herself, not landing a husband.

Nor is “Moana” alone in its progressive nature. “Frozen,” “Zootopia,” and “Brave” are just a few of the recent animated offerings to have focused on women and girls who are assertive, emancipated, and the equal to any man. Moreover, “Moana” is populated by Pacific Islanders, a far more diverse set of people than the ones who pop up in the lily white worlds of the original “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast.”

“We’ve had a series of films with empowered women doing amazing things,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “There’s something in that that’s sticky and resonates with a broader audience. It’s fresh and different, but there’s still something familiar and relatable to the movies we’re making.”

It also comes at a time when the consumer base is diversifying. Studies show that black and Hispanic moviegoers over-sample as a portion of the population and the film-going audience remains majority female. Moreover, the movie business is increasingly a global one, with more than 70% of revenues for most major Hollywood blockbusters coming from foreign audiences.

At a time when the entertainment industry is engulfed in an ongoing debate about the lack of meaty roles for women and minorities, Disney has thrived by creating vehicles for females and people of color. In some cases, inclusion has even been the explicit theme of the company’s work. “Zootopia,” for instance, took on the issue of prejudice and segregation, but made it palatable for children by transposing it to a fictitious animal world in which foxes and other creatures grapple with discrimination.

That commitment to greater inclusion extends beyond the animated realm. The two lead roles in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” went to a woman and a black actor. Marvel will offer up “Black Panther,” its first film with a predominantly black cast, and “Captain Marvel,” its first standalone movie anchored by a female superhero.

There are areas where Disney has lagged. The studio has struggled to offer as many opportunities behind the camera. “Black Panther’s” Ryan Coogler will be the African-American first man to direct a Marvel film, but a woman has yet to oversee one of the comic-book outings. Likewise, the “Star Wars” pictures have been overseen by white men. That may change. In interviews with Variety this month, both LucasFilm chief Kathleen Kennedy and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige described increasing diversity both above and below the line as a top priority.

“It’s not something we want to do,” said Kennedy. “It’s something we will do…Our goal is that it will be something we stop having to talk about because it will be so ubiquitous.”

For his part, Feige argues, “The comics have always been progressive and showcased all sorts of different cultures and ethnicities and we want to stay true to that.”

Beyond finding universal stories that cut across gender, racial and geographic boundaries, Disney has exploited the power of branding. In a fractured media landscape, that’s helped the company stand out from the pack. Han Solo, Iron Man, and “Toy Story’s” Woody are known the world over. They have the kind of international appeal that forces people into the theaters and they lend themselves to sprawling, special-effects augmented stories that are better enjoyed on the big screen than the iPhone.

“[Disney CEO] Bob Iger understood that at its essence, Disney is a branded content company,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “They own some of the best brands in the world and they have excellent people running them.”

Getting to that point, of course, required an enormous outlay of capital. Disney spent nearly $16 billion to buy Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm. Much of its current success is related to that strategy of acquisition and integration. It’s also resulted in a useful cross-pollination.

From Pixar, for instance, Disney has incorporated a relentless emphasis on storytelling. The company’s workshopping approach to plotting has seeped into its other animated efforts, with senior management weighing in and spitballing throughout a film’s development and production. At the same time, Marvel’s approach to  universe building, in which various movies feed into each other as characters from one picture team up with or are pitted against those from another, is now being applied to the “Star Wars” films. Next month’s “Rogue One,” is the first film in the series to exist outside the main Skywalker saga, and other spin-offs are planned.

Its arsenal of top-shelf brands has made Disney the dominant player in movies. The company is poised to set a new industry record for annual box office revenue, bypassing the $6.89 billion that Universal made in 2015. It also commands 23.7% of the domestic market share, the biggest percentage controlled by any studio in at least 15 years.

“You look at their schedule for the next ten years, and nothing is going to change,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They’re going to be number one for awhile.”

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