This Disney princess is really a heroine

Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho says Moana, who she voices in the animated film, shows great strength and courage

Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, is no damsel in distress.
Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, is no damsel in distress.PHOTO: WALT DISNEY ANIMATION STUDIOS
Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho (above), is no damsel in distress.
Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho (above), is no damsel in distress.PHOTO: YIP WAI YEE

If Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho had her way, she would call Moana, the new Disney character that she voices in the new animated film of the same name, something other than a princess.

"I like to call Moana a heroine. Yes, she's born to royalty, but she's really a heroine. She goes on a heroine's - or a hero's - journey, for that matter, it's beyond gender for me," says the bubbly 15-year-old at a recent interview with The Straits Times and regional press in Singapore .

The Disney princess campaign has been a runaway success for the company. It features a group of female protagonists who have appeared in popular Disney films, such as Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959) and Belle (Beauty And The Beast, 1991).

Even though Moana is not part of the official line-up yet, it is believed that she will join it eventually.

But unlike many of the other princesses, who have been criticised for being damsels in distress who are much too dependent on men to rescue them, Moana will not have a love interest in her film, which opens in Singapore next week.

She sails across the Pacific Ocean on her own in search of the solution to save her island from destruction.

Along the way, she befriends demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and learns more about her identity.

"She shows such strength and presence, I think that makes her a wonderful role model for both young men and women," says Cravalho.

This is the first film for the teenager, whose only entertainment experience before this had been in backyard plays and her high school glee club.

She was reportedly cast after she submitted a video tape of herself performing mash-up songs for a non-profit event, which was administered by a Disney casting director. She was then whisked off to Los Angeles for more tests before landing her part.

Moana's producer Osnat Shurer, who was in town along with Cravalho to promote the film, says that she was picked for the role out of hundreds of girls because she "showed no fear".

Ms Shurer says: "Auli'i can really act and sing, and she also embodies the characteristics that Moana has, such as empathy and courage.

"She's also grounded in her culture, which is wonderful. And the great bonus was that when we first put her next to the character that we already designed, she looked just like Moana."

In person, Cravalho is friendly and animated, unafraid to act goofy in public; at the press event here, she made funny faces and broke out into impromptu hula dance moves on stage.

Cravalho, the only daughter of an administration assistant mother, says her first name Auli'i is pronounced "'ow' like when you stub your toe, then 'lee' like Bruce Lee, and then another 'ee'".

And it means "dainty, exquisite, and perfect".

The past year has been as much of a growing-up process for herself as it is for Moana in the film.

She says: "Moana finds herself through this journey and I think I've been doing a lot of that in the past year, too.

"All the travels I've been doing, figuring out how to balance this with school and just meeting all of you - I think I've grown up a lot.

"I still don't know what I want to do with my life, but I know that I have real passion in acting and singing, so hopefully, I'll get to do more of that in the future."

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•Moana opens in cinemas on Nov 24.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'This Disney princess is really a heroine'. Subscribe