I just got back from seeing Moana. I am so blown away by the power and timeliness of this film that I find it difficult to put into words exactly what what I want to say about it. What can I say: I had tears rolling down my face for much of it. It speaks so deeply to what is crying out to be healed today. Two thumbs way up.
My Disney studies mythie partner in crime, Priscilla Hobbs. has already done a lovely discussion of Joseph Campbell’s theories related to this film. I completely agree with everything she said about it. This is Campbell’s hero’s journey through and through, and with Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm, it’s no surprise. You can read Priscilla’s take on it — here.
Here’s the story: Moana is the daughter of a chieftain, which technically makes her a princess, kinda, but already sets her up as a different kind of princess, much like Merida. She is in line to become the leader of her people, and again, much like Merida, her family expects her to assume a safe path set out in front of her. At first, she thinks she will take the place her family has set out for her. But she keeps hearing the call of the sea, and the stories of her grandmother beacon her further toward it.
As she assumes the role of leader, a natural disaster begins to develop. The coconut are failing and the fish have disappeared. The island is dying. The people look to their leader, Moana, who looks to her father. In his fear and desire to protect her, he suggests she continue with the conventional ways of doing things. Moana, frustrated, reaches out to her mother. She insists that her father just doesn’t understand her. Her mother replies that he does understand her because he WAS her. She tells Moana about a time when her father went on an adventure of his own and lost a friend in the process. He is afraid that he will lose her too.
Eventually, Moana reaches for an even deeper connection to her family’s woman wisdom. Her grandmother tells her the stories about the ancient chiefs and how they were voyagers. At one time, the people were in harmony with the ocean, and the gods continued to bless them with islands to explore. This all ended when Maui — the shapeshifter, the trickster — stole the heart from Te Fiti. This is a familiar story, much like Prometheus stealing fire to give to the humans in Greek myth. During this process, Maui encounters the lava monster Te Ka. He loses his fish hook, the source of his power and since then, the island of Te Fiti has been cursed.
Moana sets off on a quest to return the heart to Te Fiti, finding and befriending Maui in the process (BRILLIANTLY voiced by the legendary Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
The film’s themes are clear, and they are ones that Disney has explored in many and varied ways — ecological concerns have become central to Disney films. From live action movies such as Maleficent and The Jungle Book to Disney’s recent string of nature films, it’s become clear that Disney artists are deeply concerned about the state of our ecology. In fact, I’ve always understood the animal sidekicks of the Disney princesses as a reminder that humanity’s heart beats in time with the animal realm. I love that this film calls it out.
About Maui: The trickster exists in every mythic tradition. Tricksters are complex and basically impossible to define, other than to say that they shape shift. They lie. They destroy things. The reverse human standards. They laugh (mostly at us). They piss us off. They also reveal things that have been buried and then the walk away, often leaving humanity to clean up their mess. Sure, tricksters are jerks, but they are also vital because they break things open that need to be broken and they often aid humanity in our search for knowledge. They insist that the gods share their wisdom with mortals. And they often suffer for it. Without tricksters, the quest for wisdom would never leave the shore.
It’s particularly important to note that Moana doesn’t have a villain in the traditional sense. There is no evil here, simply misunderstanding. Even the trickster isn’t evil, he is just sad, rejected, unloved, and a little misunderstood. And he isn’t just a trickster — he is also a warrior. That warrior part of him is thwarted by his role as a trickster.
Ultimately Moana, another incarnation of Disney’s archetypal maiden, steps forward in bravery, love and acceptance, heals the island, and saves her people. She helps both Maui and the lava monster remember who they are, and in doing so, she becomes a catalyst for healing. She returns balance to the ocean.
This film is a mythic respite of hope in a dark moment when American culture is overrun by the most destructive aspects of both the trickster archetype and the warrior. To me, it feels like a clear calling out of conventional images of masculinity — a come to Jesus moment if you will — as well as a calling out of patriarchal heroism. It reminds us that we can heal, if we want to, but to do that the gentlest among us need to rise up, take the trickster by the ear, and tell him that it’s time to journey across the mighty sea and return the heart he has stolen.
In some ways, Moana is a new kind of Disney heroine, but she is also one that is in line with who Disney heroines have always been — healers who love their families, their people, and especially their fathers. Young women of strength and power who listen to the voice of their elders and do what needs to be done. This film resonates with me a on a deep level. I love it. Thanks Disney!