I haven’t stopped thinking about Moana since I watched it over the Thanksgiving weekend. I also haven’t stopped listening to the film’s soundtrack. I loved it immensely, as I knew I would. This is the story of a brown girl who embarks on a grandiose hero’s journey to save the world. It resonated me with me more than any other Disney Princess movie has.
My writing on Moana is only one of many. My platform here is small, but for anyone reading this post, I encourage you to seek the perspectives of Polynesians. That is vitally important. This is Disney’s attempt to portray an indigenous culture and those communities need to be heard.
This video was a response to the film’s trailers. Students and scholars discuss their concerns about the film’s portrayal of Maui, a sacred figure in Polynesian lore, its impact on Western perceptions of the Pacific Islands, and more.
My naive hope is that the outsiders who watch this film, non Polynesian people of color and white people alike, don’t allow this film to be their only source of knowledge. I hope no one walked out of the theater thinking they understood the individual cultures of Pacific Islanders, especially since the filmmakers apparently blended the customs and traditions of different islands. This is obviously problematic because suddenly the Pacific Islands become a monolith. Are Samoan traditions not unique to Samoa?, and so on. It’s my hope that children who are curious are guided by critical adults who won’t simply rely on a Disneyfied approach to learning. Disney films can serve as a great starting off point, but only to start. Real, sincere work needs to be done to avoid cultural appropriation and insensitivity. That work cannot begin with only a Disney film as the foundation.
Before I discuss the film in depth, I’d like to highlight what Disney did right:
- All of the actors involved in the film are of Polynesian descent. That seems like a no-brainer, but too often, animated media about people of color will feature white actors. Alan Tudyk is the sole white person in the voice cast, and as he’s playing a rooster, his lines consist only of squawks and screeches. (Tudyk is Disney’s own John Ratzenberger).
- Speaking of the actors, the voice of Moana, Auli’i Cravalho, is an incandescent newcomer and a real life Disney Princess. Demigod Maui is voiced by the extremely charismatic Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, aka my mom’s favorite wrestler. I feel like I grew up with him.
- Even if the final result wasn’t wholly authentic, I was ecstatic to see this celebration of a vibrant culture and of brown people and their music and language. Lin-Manuel Miranda along with Samoan artist Opetaia Foa’i wrote the songs, so the language is fully integrated into the music and film.
- Both of Moana’s parents are living. And so is her grandmother, Gramma Tala. This isn’t the first Disney Princess film to have a grandmother, but the relationship between Moana and Gramma Tala is much more prominent and central to the story. Also, Gramma Tala is not a tree. I love stories with grandmothers, probably because I’ve always ached for a relationship with mine. They both died before I was born.
- The title of the film is a girl’s name rather than a generic adjective. It’s a non English word; Maori for ocean.
Moana does tread familiar water. It’s a typical Disney film; there’s an unlikely duo who learn to work together and become friends; an animal sidekick; the hero following their heart against all odds; and excellent, catchy songs. But the film does subvert the Disney formula. It’s a new kind of Disney Princess film that still feels the same. And this is not a bad thing.
Moana is accompanied on her voyage across the sea by the legendary Maui, who initially refuses. When they first meet, he belts out one of the film’s catchiest songs, gloating about all he’s done. I need everyone to know that I sang this to my father after I washed the dishes without even being asked. And no, he did not thank me (for the dishes or the song).
He successfully distracts her, steals her boat, and leaves her stranded on the island. But Moana catches up to bewildered Maui, all thanks to her friend, the ocean. Leave it to Disney animators to personify the ocean as a playful friend. Impressive too because for all its jaw dropping beauty, the ocean is a deadly and terrifying force. Here it’s benign.
Moana has had a special connection to the ocean ever since she was a beautiful little baby. But she’s not allowed to sail past the reef, because her father, Chief Tui, has witnessed firsthand how dangerous the sea can be. Their island of Motonui has everything they could ever need. Moana is happy to stay right where she is, but the ocean continues to call her. When the food on Motonui begins to spoil, and the fish disappear, Moana suggests sailing past the reef in order to find more. Her father angrily rejects the idea, even though it’s perfectly sensible and meant to benefit their people.
But Gramma Tala comes to the rescue. She has always understood Moana’s longing for the sea. And that longing is embedded in Moana’s soul; it’s connected to her life’s purpose. And her life purpose is not to avoid the ocean.
“We Know the Way” is my favorite song. And that clip above is a partial one, but it may just be my favorite scene of the film. Thanks to Tala, Moana discovers that her ancestors were seafaring voyagers. This is why the ocean calls her. Moana is meant to reclaim the forgotten legacy of her ancestors.
I get really emotional listening to “We Know the Way” and how ancestral roots are so closely intertwined with the concept of identity. This is what resonated with me so profoundly. And the songs, brilliantly penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, enrich this theme.
“We Know the Way” is meant to instill pride. Polynesians were the first to navigate the seas. That’s such an awe inspiring legacy.
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are
“I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” is another emotional and cathartic listening experience. The title of the song says it all; who she is is directly tied to who her ancestors were and what they achieved. Their knowledge of the sea and of themselves has been passed down to her.
Moana, listen, do you know who you are?
This is not typical self discovery. Moana has known all along who she is, even when she wondered if there was something wrong with her for constantly going back to the water. But her knowledge of herself has been strengthened. Like her ancestors, she knows the way.
I am Moana!
It’s such an overwhelming moment, carried to powerful perfection by Auli’i Cravalho’s tremendous voice. This is really the first time a Disney hero has so boldly asserted their name and identity.
Some people dismiss Disney Princesses because of the so called cliche elements in the stories. But these films do possess a poignancy despite being Disneyfied. Moana’s story resonated with me as a second generation kid from the African diaspora. (My parents are from an island too). This isn’t a film about immigrants, but speaking for myself, knowing who you are and where you come from is inextricably connected, especially when you grew up in your parents’ adopted country.
The princesses are an amazing collection of characters. Disney filmmakers fall into the same trap of dismissing the older ones. According to many, the presence of a male love interest weakens the story. But each princess is a whole and complete character even if they do fall in love. And honestly, if you praise the absence of romance in these films, if you think that a princess without her prince is that noteworthy, you’re still defining her by her lack of a relationship to a man. Moana is a powerful and extraordinary girl; she still would be if she was allowed to have a love interest.
Concept art by Jin Kim.
A lot of hype surrounded Moana being a kick ass heroine, and it was justified. But you can’t reduce Moana to her physical strength alone, the same way you can’t reduce a heroine to her lack of physical strength. Moana’s emotional strength, her capacity for empathy and compassion, demonstrated at a remarkably early age, is married to her physical strength. And which do you think allows her to restore balance to the natural world and save her island from destruction? Yeah, she totally kicks ass, but she’s also a healer.
Moana can be both. She is gentle and kind, as well as fierce and powerful. That’s what the kids call multifaceted. This is a story where the heroine isn’t forced to choose between two diverging paths.
“Right Where You Are” establishes the way of life on Motonui and what’s expected of Moana. She will assume her father’s role as chief. She will lead her people and this is not regarded as exceptional because of her gender. How refreshing. Moana isn’t even rebellious. She longs to venture beyond the reef (“How Far I’ll Go”) but she also wants to fulfill her duties. She is prepared to be the next chief because she is capable, strong, and intelligent; a born leader with a leader’s temperament. She is anchored by the love and pride of her family, as well as the belief the villagers have in her. She will be a great chief someday. I can’t recall other movies taking this approach, where the hero doesn’t summarily reject their family’s well intentioned plans for their life to follow their heart. Moana doesn’t have to choose between Motonui and voyaging. Like her ancestors before her:
We keep our island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way
I love that as much of a departure as Moana is for Disney, the film isn’t obnoxious about it. Maui calls her a princess because she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick, a good natured poke at those everlasting Disney Princess tropes.
Despite key differences, Moana is still like the other girls, although she does correct Maui and says she’s the daughter of the chief. (I think the same distinction should be extended to Pocahontas, another chief’s daughter who was actually a real person).
But the princess Moana reminded me of was my favorite Studio Ghibli heroine, Nausicaa. They are young women who can battle, but they are also kind and compassionate. The prophecies tell of a man, or demigod, who will save the earth, but it’s not a man at all. It’s a girl. Moana and Nausicaa are the ones who restore the earth after its been plagued by ecological disaster.
Climate change threatens the Pacific Islands directly. A Disney film can’t reverse its damage, but it can open up dialogue. We should all take a more active interest in this very real ecological disaster.
MOANA – The Rising of the Sea is a documentary on the effects of climate change in the South Pacific. All I have to say is: watch it. It combines different forms of art to spread awareness about this urgent concern.
In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, Moana is the hero we need right now. It’s not only because her film centers brown people, but because those brown people take pride in their identity. To my fellow brown people,
we know who we are.