As Disney returns to the sea nearly two decades after The Little Mermaid, the animation studio's newest heroine feels a whole world away from Ariel.

In the 1989 undersea film, of course, the young heroine pines for a man from afar, literally losing her voice in the process. In the new Moana, by contrast - which also, like Mermaid, includes Ron Clements and John Musker as directors - the seafaring title character embarks on a Polynesian journey of self-discovery that does not involve a romantic lead.

Moana is no Disney princess.

"Disney does have a legacy of female heroines," says Bill Schwab, the film's art director for characters, "but I feel like Moana is unique". Historically, of course, Disney's classic storytelling formula has included landing a love interest, from Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella right up through Frozen and Tangled. To find a strong Disney princess who is an exception, you have to look toward such films as Pixar's Brave. At the centre of Moana's individuality is the Disney team's focus on creating a teenage adventurer.

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"From even the early versions of the script, she was going to be an action hero," Schwab said.

"The other enormous piece of this character," the designer notes, "was finding Auli'i." When the filmmakers found voice actor and singer Auli'i Cravalho, a native of Hawaii, they found a fresh talent who fully embraced the spirit of Moana. On Tuesday, just hours before Moana opened, Cravalho turned 16 - the same age as her character.

"Not a bad 16th birthday present," Schwab says.