A young Pacific Islander woman finds her destiny, restores her people’s character, and becomes the newest Disney Princess in Moana. The animated musical from directors Ron Clements and John Musker (the team that made The Little Mermaid) brings the ethos of Oceania to our attention as it takes us into the creation mythology and how that helps to define the people.
The film opens with a recitation of the creation myth as it is told on the island of Motunui, where Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter and presumed heir of the island chief. Moana is a special child. She is chosen by the sea (which is as much a character in the film as a setting) for greatness. But her father has forbidden anyone to go beyond the safety of the reef. Because the sea can be so dangerous, he (and chiefs before him) have abandoned the seagoing ways that are part of their history for the security of the island. But Moana is drawn to the sea and urged on by her grandmother, sets off to restore the balance to the world that has been off since the demigod Maui stole the heart of Ta Fiti (the goddess mother island). Since that time Te Kā (the lava god) has spread destruction.
So Moana sets off in an ancient boat to seek out Maui and force him to restore the heart to its proper place. Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is a larger than life character with animated tattoos and an ego larger than the expansive sea. He is a trickster and shapeshifter. It is Maui, with his magical fishhook that pulled the various islands from the sea. But he has been exiled to an island without his fishhook. (There is a touch of Prometheus in Maui. He sees himself as humankind’s provider and guardian, which led to his theft of Ta Fiti’s heart.) His priorities are not the same as Moana’s as they set off across the sea to find his fishhook and restore Te Fiti’s heart.
In time they will have to defeat Te Kā through Maui’s magic and Moana’s courage and ingenuity. In the process Moana discovers that her gifts make her the person who can lead her people to new islands, new worlds, new life.
I generally find the musical numbers in films like this something of a distraction. The upside of the music in this film is many of the lyrics were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). The wittiness of Maui’s song “You’re Welcome” is a fine example of a good use of music, even though overall, I’d still have preferred a non-musical story.
I noted that Moana is the newest Disney Princess. They have been expanding their princesses by including a variety of ethnicities, so it makes sense that they would eventually get to a Pacific Islander. I don’t think this is a matter of political correctness. It is more likely about marketing merchandise. (But that may just be my cynical side coming through.) But they are very blatant in the film in identifying Moana as a princess. In one of their disagreements, Moana corrects Maui who has called her “Princess”. She denies she is a princess. He points out that she’s a chief’s daughter and has an animal sidekick (a part of the Disney Princess formula), so she must be a princess. While that is meant to be a bit of cute, semi-insider humor, I find it a bit off-putting in that it actually takes away from the sense of originality a story should have.
Mythic stories exist to help us understand our core values as peoples. They give us an identity (or tell us something of the identity of the peoples whose myths are being told). As such I take such stories seriously. Unfortunately, Moana never quite lives up to the potential of such stories. I don’t feel that it has given me any depth of understanding of the history, culture, or values of the peoples of Oceania. There is only a glimpse of such things. Sadly I think Moana is too much Disney Princess and not enough Pacific Islander hero.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.