With Disney’s Moana having handily won the Thanksgiving-weekend box-office, much of the world has now met the newest Disney Princess — or, more accurately, the newest Disney daughter-of-a-chief.
Moana includes a sly aside noting that its titular protagonist is not a princess in the traditional fairy-tale sense — even if she does, in the words of Dwayne Johnson’s demigod character, Maui, "wear a dress and have an animal sidekick." She’s the daughter of a leader, but her destiny is not simply to marry a handsome prince; it’s to save the island the people she will one day lead herself.
But Moana is destined to be a Disney Princess — that is, part of the trademarked franchise of princess characters from the company’s animated films. And following the character into that dynasty is Auli’i Cravalho, the teenage newcomer who provides Moana’s speaking and singing voice.
Cravalho’s casting as Moana was announced in October of 2015, in a characteristically hashtag-bedecked Instagram post from her future costar (and vocal Moana cheerleader) Johnson. Johnson’s post hyped the then-14-year-old Carvalho’s unlikely discovery, claiming she didn’t even audition for the role because she "didn’t think she was good enough," but was discovered by casting agents when she won a local singing competition.
From her unlikely discovery story to Moana’s successful box-office bow, Cravalho's casting has surely been a life-changing event for her — but it’s also somewhat extraordinary in the grand scheme of Disney princess casting.
It's rare for a complete unknown to be crowned a Disney Princess these days
The last three official princesses to join the Disney Princess lineup — The Princess and the Frog's Tiana, Tangled's Rapunzel, and Brave's Merida — were all voiced by established actresses: Anika Noni Rose, Mandy Moore, and Kelly Macdonald, respectively. (Frozen's Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell, has not officially joined the Disney princess lineup yet — she's apparently still one of the "Disney princesses in waiting," whatever that means.)
Moana is also the first Disney princess of Pacific Islander descent, and Cravalho, a Hawaii native, reflects that. She'll be just the fourth actress of color to voice a Disney princess, the first since Rose played Tiana in 2009's The Princess and the Frog.
But Cravalho is also the first actual teenager to voice a Disney princess
While every fictional Disney princess to this point has been a teenager, ranging from 14 to 19 years in age, they've all been voiced by adult women.
While it's not unusual for adults to voice children or teenage characters in animated films — indeed, it's the norm —it's a little striking that pop culture's most visible teenage girls have been voiced by grown-ass women, especially considering TV's Disney Channel is essentially a teen-talent incubator.
Truthfully, the age of an actor voicing an animated character doesn't matter that much; it's all about the performance, after all. But Cravalho's casting in relation to her age is still noteworthy, in that it reflects how Disney is striving for authenticity with Moana, from its Pacific Isles setting to its soundtrack (which includes contributions from New Zealand Pacific music singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa'i) to its casting (which also includes Johnson, who is of Samoan descent).
Authenticity wasn't always the watchword. Though early Disney princesses like Snow White and Cinderella were voiced by women in their early 20s, in recent years, the actresses have gotten (relatively) older, while the princesses have stayed (relatively) the same age. Just look at the chart below.
(All ages are those of the actresses at the film's time of release, with the exception of Sleeping Beauty, whose audio was recorded seven years prior to its release.)
Disney princesses are big business
Cravalho has been inducted into a long and lucrative dynasty. The Disney princess franchise as it's known today has only been around since the early 2000s, but its royal members stretch all the way back to Snow White, from Disney's very first feature-length animated film. They're sort of like the Avengers of Disney fairy tales.
This modern iteration of the Disney princess is more of a branding construct than anything, a way to sell fans both young and old princess-ified merchandise ranging from toys and clothing to video games to wedding dresses.
A new princess in the lineup — and it should be noted that Moana won't be inducted into the lineup for a while (apparently, one can't simply be born a Disney Princess) — means new merchandising opportunities for the Disney juggernaut, yes, but it also means potential work opportunities for the actress voicing that princess.
Previous Disney princesses like Jodi Benson (who voiced The Little Mermaid's Ariel) and Linda Larkin (Aladdin's Jasmine) forged long careers reprising their respective characters in spinoff TV shows, direct-to-video sequels, and video games. And even actresses with successful, varied acting careers outside their time with the Mouse House often return to their princess character, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Ming-Na Wen, who still reprises her role as Mulan every now and again.
So if Moana is a hit — which, given its opening weekend, is all but a certainty — Cravalho is looking at years and years of potential work down the road, no small thing for an unknown actress.
But the most endearing aspect of Cravalho's casting is the fact that she is so young, and so close to the Disney princess target demo. "From baby time to now, I wanted to be a Disney princess," she told People magazine when her casting was announced. Her reaction to being cast, captured in the video below, is bubbling over with the sort of teen-girl energy and enthusiasm we'd never see from a more seasoned actress. It's impossible not to root for her.