Princess Moana, the Rogue One rebel, the Eagle Huntress: meet films female heroes

A slate of vivid movies is coming to cinemas for Christmas and many of them have women at the centre of their story

What do a Pacific Islander on an emotional quest, the wilful leader of a small rebel band and a young girl who dreams of learning to fly an eagle have in common? Theyre all set to dominate the box office this Christmas.

On the surface, Disney animation Moana, Star Wars spinoff Rogue One and documentary The Eagle Huntress are three very different films. What they share, however, is a sense of indomitable purpose and the ability to move audiences at a time when they are desperately in need of good cheer and its this that looks set to propel them to success.

Weve had a lot of girl guides, football teams and high school groups coming to watch the film and the reaction has been amazing, says Otto Bell, director of The Eagle Huntress, which follows a young Kazakh girl, Aisholpan, as she battles prejudice and bad weather to become the first female to enter the countrys annual Golden Eagle competition. We had one moment where we came out after Sundance and all these kids whod seen the film spontaneously started applauding, cheering and shouting her signature eagle-calling shout. It was incredible.

The intrepid and independent Moana in Disneys film, who has been described by many critics as an anti-princess, has received a similarly warm response. What I love about Moana is its focus on a young leader who discovers her inner power and learns to trust herself, says Anthony Breznican of Entertainment Weekly. Plus she shows the charming but pompous tough guy, Maui, that brawling isnt always the best solution to a problem. Brothers everywhere, big and little, should take note.

Meanwhile, the highly anticipated Rogue One, which opens this week, will see Felicity Joness Jyn Erso gather a ragtag band of rebels including Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna and Donnie Yen to take on the might of the Empire a plotline that has taken on slightly more resonance in the light of recent political events.

So are we seeing the rise of a new kind of heroine? Bell says that what drew him to Aisholpan was her quiet determination, and its certainly the case that all three women are shown as go-getting leaders. I see Moanas story as a classic heros journey regardless of gender, says Osnat Shurer, producer of the Disney animation. We see her courage and emotional intelligence, her determination and compassion, and its a fascinating tale.

In recent years, Disney has made concerted efforts to move away from its image as the home of sparkling dresses, glass slippers, singing birds and princes swooping in to save the day. Brave was a story about the bonds between mothers and sisters, Frozen a tale of sisterly love and loyalty, and even though Rapunzel and Tiana the respective heroines of Tangled and The Princess and the Frog got their men, in neither case was it their main concern.

Aisholpan, the young Kazakh falconer whose story is told in documentary The Eagle Huntress Photograph: Allstar/Sony Pictures Classics
I just rewatched Sleeping Beauty and I forgot how passive she is: its the fairies and the prince who come to the rescue. Same for Snow White and Cinderella, says Monica Castillo, film writer for the New York Times. Starting with the 1990s Disney renaissance, the princesses become more active, peaking with Mulan, who becomes a warrior to take her fathers place in the army. I was thrilled that Tiana had ambitions beyond big ballgowns and the real love story of Frozen was between two sisters. Its a whole new world from where we started: pretty things to be rescued from witches, dragons and evil stepmothers.

Moana continues that evolution with a story thats as much about helping your community as discovering yourself. Most notably, her figure is athletic and strong rather than wasp-waisted and delicate. She had to look as though she could go on this journey to save her world, says Shurer. The way she looks shouldnt be radical but its true that right now it is. Hawaiian writer Robyn Lucas agrees. Moana as a Disney princess was not only body-positive, but having her as a darker-skinned/brown girl made a huge impact, she says. I was mesmerised watching it, because it was the first time I saw anyone who looked like me on the screen in that capacity as a leading actress.

Many fans are also responding to the opportunity to celebrate a brown girl in a leading role. I loved it Ive seen it twice now and think it does a very good job of both harking back to the Disney renaissance and moving the story forward in a progressive way, says Aisha Harris, culture writer for Slate and the host of that sites popular podcast, Represent. Theres no prince, no love interest. Its a film about a girl and her journey and the heroine is a girl of colour, and thats so important.

Daniel Jose Older, author of the acclaimed young adult fantasy Shadowshaper and a new novella, Ghost Girl In The Corner, agrees: Moana isnt passive. Shes central to the story and I know from my own inbox how important that is since I wrote Shadowshaper, its been full of brown girls saying they hadnt felt at home in a book before. Its a really powerful experience to find yourself at home somewhere without being translated by others. To see that in a Disney movie is huge.

Nor is it the only example. A recent piece in Vanity Fair quoted Disney as saying that between 2016 and 2018 about 24% of the studios live-action releases will feature ethnic minority leads. A similar push has been made by Disney-owned LucasFilm regarding female leads brunette and British ones, at least with Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones set to join Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones in the Star Wars universe.

The Force Awakens and Rogue One absolutely show that female heroes can carry a blockbuster action-adventure movie, says Breznican. Similarly, Moana shows that we can continue to reach beyond the Brothers Grimm. The world is full of amazing folktales and mythology and animated films are just another step in the process of handing these stories to a new generation.

Not everyone is singing Moanas praises, however. Disney worked for six years on the film, establishing an Oceanic Story Trust made up of people from all walks of Pacific Islands life, from anthropologists and linguists to master navigators and tattooists. It employed a Samoan musician, Opetaia Foai, to co-write the music, and cast two stars with Pacific Island heritage, Aulii Cravalho (Moana) who is Native Hawaiian and Dwayne The Rock Johnson (Maui) who is half-Samoan. But some Pacific Islanders remain unconvinced.

Feleicity Jones as Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Photograph: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm

Disney is engaged in a sophisticated form of colonisation, says Dr Teresia Teaiwa, senior lecturer in Pacific studies at Victoria University of Wellington. It has very cleverly manipulated some islanders deep desire to be affirmed by the dominant culture and its now selling this desire back to us. What is most insidious about Moana is that is offers us roles as a comical buffoon on one hand or an adolescent faux-feminist on the other, and distracts us from the deep and rebellious intelligence that is our true inheritance, in this ocean that has been our home for millennia.

Tina Ngata, a teacher at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, New Zealands indigenous university, and a campaigner for indigenous rights, agrees. Moana has taken a very broad-stroke approach to a very wide area that holds a very diverse set of cultures, she says. The film is problematic about many things, from rock-stacking, which is actually a very disrespectful and problematic practice in Hawaii, to Moanas father banning the village from venturing beyond the reef which is codswallop, and does not reflect our own world views and likely responses to the event of losing someone at sea.

Our region has always been an exotic escape that people go to in order to turn their back on stress, and acknowledging distinct mana [rights] is not a part of that experience. A number of whanau [extended families] from islands across the Pacific are genuinely enjoying the movie. All I can say to that is not all that we enjoy is good for us.

Shurer remains sanguine. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, particularly about their own culture, she says. My one hope is that people see the film and dont make their decisions simply based on the trailer.

Lucas agrees. Although there were some problems with the film, the makers had clearly done a great deal of research and I understand that you cant fully get Polynesian culture condensed for a two-hour film.

I adore Moana because she was smart and yet vulnerable and her relationship with her parents was respectful, which is huge.

Its important, too, that the commitment to creating diverse and interesting characters continues. Older says: Its great that weve got to this point, but we cant get stuck here. Our world and society are complex and diverse and the stories we tell and are told need to reflect that.

Moana is out now. Rogue One and The Eagle Huntress are both released thisweek

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