By now I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic story of Moana. She (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of an island chief, next in line for power. A death is choking her island because long ago a trickster god, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole Te Fiti’s heart and must return it. She leaves the island to find him, bring him to Te Fiti, and save her island.
But this isn’t really just that. This is the story of three women: Moana, her grandmother Tala, and Te Fiti. Moana is chosen by the sea to take Te Fiti’s heart back to Maui but her father insists she stay on the island. Moana isn’t just inheriting the role of chief from her father. There’s history that is hefted upon her as well. While her ancestors were seafarers, it has been tradition to keep everyone safely on the island. Her father adheres to this explicitly because he once tried to leave and this led to the death of a childhood friend. Surprisingly, Moana comes to the conclusion that she should stay as this is the best way to help her people. It’s only years later while trying to make leadership decisions that she comes to the conclusion that taking to the sea is the best thing to do. This whole time Moana’s grandmother, Tala, has been advising her.
It’s at this point that Disney’s newfound courage and effort starts to become apparent. In the standard Disney Princess flick it’s not rare for a parental figure to hold their daughter back out of fear. That character arc of developing a sense of responsibility and agency is actually what most princesses go through over the course of their movie. In Moana it’s actually done in the early exposition. She realizes on her own that the village needs her and that she can still be happy remaining on land, leading them. And while grandmother Tala is always there, urging her to follow her heart, it’s never a push. Tala answers questions with questions, gently guiding Moana to listen to her heart as well as her head.
Moana: Is there something you want to tell me?
Tala: Is there something you want to hear?
Moana’s real story isn’t finding out who she is as a single step, but in different contexts. She learns early on what she wants. Then she learns who she has to be in the context of the island. The voyage she undertakes eventually teaches her who she is in the context of her culture.
FINAL SPOILER WARNING
I mentioned a third woman central to the story. That would be Te Fiti. She begins the movie as a goddess of life. Maui steals her heart and she turns cruel and lifeless: Te Kā, a volcanic creature who is ostensibly the villain. That means that this may be the first Disney princess movie to give the villain a backstory (without trying to retcon it into a disappointing live action remake). It also means that the villain isn’t actually evil to be defeated, but hurt and in need of aid.
Disney hasn’t been very good with developing their women, so to see such a drastic change is impressive. This movie has been touted as having things which animated Disney films often lack:
- a female lead
- no romantic subplot
- conflict rather than a villain
Disney has done the lack of romance in Zootopia and Big Hero 6 (which is a Marvel/Disney hybrid), and the female lead in Frozen and, again, Zootopia. But conflict rather than villain has usually been more of a Pixar thing. Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Ratatouille to an extent, and Inside Out all focus more on characters overcoming rather than characters defeating. Man vs. Self or Man vs. Nature, rather than Man vs. Man, for those into literary construction. For Disney to take a shot at all three of these in the same film is pretty outstanding and impressive. Moana was a delight and it’s easy to forget how Disney assembles movies. Pixar is known for not putting their films through focus groups. In fact, I was able to see the first part of Up before it was released and the representative from Pixar actually left the theater before it began in order not to see anyone’s reactions. Disney has no such prohibition on screening audiences, and in fact have scrapped major projects because of them. The fact that this movie made it out of the pipeline with so many experimental aspects woven in is astounding.
Disney has been pulling inspiration from Pixar for a bit now. Zootopia features original world building instead of adapting folk-story, and Tangled and Frozen have marked the beginning of a trend of strongly written princesses as a new standard. Likewise, Pixar has been pulling tricks from Disney, such as the franchising of Toy Story and Nemo and the princess formula of Brave. Moana is the first Disney movie that shows actual innovation over Pixar, and not just the appropriation of disparate but successful aspects.
There is one final that I want to point out that many people looking at this film skip over, and that’s the two men in the movie. The only two men in the movie with any real lines are Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), Moana’s father and the island chief, and Maui who is played by the always lovable Dwayne Johnson. What’s more surprising than there only being two men with speaking roles in the movie is that both of them are controlled by fear. Chief Tui balances his fear with his desire for protecting his people, and Maui wrestles with his desire to be loved. In any other Disney production this would have led to an overbearing father and a villain. But in Moana they’re there to learn a lesson from Moana. Watching her find the strength to break out of what she knows and discover what her place in her culture is also inspires both to reassess their own fears. That arc is both beautiful and an impressive rejection of standard roles of masculinity. Maui is pompous and macho, but having him so clearly motivated by insecurity allows him to take a back seat to Moana’s growth and allows him to be able to confront his problems. The chief similarly benefits from this. Rather than be stubborn and end up destroying the people he’s meant to protect, he becomes a better ruler because he can learn from his daughter.
This isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a great one. Disney has not only made a fantastic (and fantastic looking) animated feature, but they’ve also cemented new standards for character depth and emotional complexity. Frozen’s feminism seemed to emerge from the process, rather than drive it. Its success was a surprise. Moana puts all of those experimental aspects at the forefront of this movie and it’s all the stronger for it.