Who am I? And, is that who I should be? With my oldest son graduating college and my teen daughter trying to navigate high school, these are questions that have become front and center in our family. Heck, it’s a question I still ask myself from time to time. The animated film Moana, about a 16-year old girl preparing to take over as Chief of a remote island in the Pacific, explores these questions, as well as—and this is really unique but rarely discussed in film—if it’s responsible to follow your passion.
The film starts with Moana preparing to relieve her father of his duties as Chief of the island of Montanui. She has a knack for solving problems, management, and making sound decisions—clearly, being the leader of her island is her destiny. But, it’s not her passion. Her dream is to sail beyond the reef—an activity forbidden in order to prevent enemies from discovering their island’s existence. She’s conflicted: should she follow her calling to stay on the island and lead her people, or follow the siren song of the ocean that’s calling to her?
Her community comes upon a survival challenge—the trees are diseased and the fish are disappearing. The issues seem to be linked to an ancient curse that can only be turned around if someone sails beyond the reef. “The ocean” makes it clear it’s choice is for Moana to make the journey…well, of course, that’s the excuse she was looking for—and she’s off on a raft, defying her father’s orders.
Let’s back up to that “ocean” identifying Moana as the chosen one. Moana is a fantasy based in fictional folklore—it deals with gods and monsters, and a body of water that is very direct in guiding Moana. In this case, the ocean seems to represent God (as in, one true), while interactions with demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and demon Te Kā are clearly presented as fiction.
Moana encounters several “bad guys” on her journeys, and high five to the filmmakers for making them seem like a pertinent threat to our heroine without being scary.
- The first identified villain is Maui—a demigod who triggered the curse when he stole “the heart” of the island Te Fiti. He’s a ripped narcissist whose tattoos move and change shape, serving as storytellers to onlookers and a conscience to Maui. Moana has to hold her own against this powerful character who controls wind and sea, eventually convincing him to help her.
- Moana and Maui must fend off an attack from a tribe of tiny pirates wearing coconut armor. As Moana says, these ruthless cretins are adorable, therefore, our heroine can be in peril without upsetting young viewers.
- Moana and Maui must recover something from a smug, ostentatious and greedy giant crab who hoards shiny objects, believing it makes him beautiful. The crab mostly sings his threats in a funny, catchy song, therefore, again, not scary.
- One monster is potentially scary. The monster demigod Maui has not succeeded in conquering is Te Kā, an enormous lava monster. She may be scary to children 5 and younger, but I must say, none of the small children in my large screening seemed disturbed.
What is potentially upsetting to children is when they learn how Maui transformed from human into a demigod. A prominent tattoo on Maui’s back shows a mother tossing away a baby. Maui sadly shares, “My mother and father didn’t want me.” He explains his parents threw him away, into the ocean, and the gods rescued him and raised him as their own, giving him powers. His power is the ability to transform…or some might say, “reinvent himself.” The tattoos covering Maui’s entire body are literal and metaphorical as well. In this demigod’s life, the tattoos show up magically once they are earned—which means he wears his greatest victories and greatest defeats. And, as stated earlier, the tattoos move—reflecting the shifting relevance of the events of our life. Deep, but only if you dig for it.
Moana may even inspire some viewers to take up sailing. Maui teaches Moana how to command a boat and attention is given to some of the key components. Big Hero 6 encouraged robotics, Brave and The Hunger Games fueled the interest in archery, and Ratatouille was an instigator of the foodie movement, so you never know.
Additionally, Moana is an uplifting musical. The songs feel like they were written with a future Broadway stage show in mind, and since Disney has been staging many of their animated hits and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote the score, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Great musical numbers are a tradition in the films of Walt Disney Animation, and while Moana’s music doesn’t achieve The Little Mermaid or Frozen status, it’s far superior to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’d place Moana more in the category of Beauty and the Beast—it could nab an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, but it’s probably is not going to get a sing-a-long version.
The most valuable moment in Moana may be when things are looking bleak for our girl. She is chastised for believing she was special and is told the ocean “chose wrong” in selecting her. She doubts herself and is ready to toss her quest aside in defeat, return to the life she believes she was supposed to live. However, the encouraging words of her grandmother come back to her and she gives herself another chance. I’m not sure children will be able to identify with this moment, but I think the older the viewer, the more they will connect and relate, to some degree like the LBGT community found a voice in Frozen when Elsa decided to “Let It Go.”
Just like Frozen seemed to subtextually address the identity politics of being gay, Moana quietly addresses the emotional unhinging that often occurs to one who has suffered sexual abuse. What? Okay, just like Frozen, audience members probably won’t pick up on this unless they can relate to it.
(SPOILERS AHEAD … SKIP PAST NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT ANYTHING REVEALED!)
Moana realizes that Na Fiti’s curse, cast upon the island when her heart was stolen, wasn’t just a way to get her heart returned. A man took her heart, and with that violent act, he took her soul and her peace. Na Fiti transformed into a creature of rage who destroys everything in her path. Moana sings and reminds the island that the loss “doesn’t define you, who you truly are.” Will little kids pick up on that? Oh, no. However, rape survivors, who have had something emotionally and physically private and precious stolen from them, probably will.
If it seems like Moana takes on a lot of issues, it does. My older children said it made them feel like a cat following a laser pointer—what, am I supposed to look here? No, the focus is over there. Oh wait, it’s up top! Hey, is that a fuzzy stuffed mouse? However, all of those wildly zinging messages—be authentic to who you are, don’t let bad treatment from others define you, believe in yourself—all land on the same idea: who you are is who you choose to be.
As for my 6-year old, he walked out of the theater and asked if he could go back in and watch the movie again—and I felt the same way. Moana is one of those timeless films that you can (and likely will) watch over and over.