Early on in the animated movie Moana (2016), the Polynesian chieftain’s daughter has an adorable pet pig who’s always getting into amusing scrapes. You think, as a seasoned Disney audience, that you’ve identified the heroine’s big-eyed, wordless sidekick.
But then Moana just sails off without her pig, and she accidentally and reluctantly acquires a brainless, completely un-cute chicken for a sidekick instead.
This switcheroo feels like a deliberate nose-thumb to predictable Disney tropes. Moana’s constant companion often provides comic relief, but not as a cutesy break from the story. Instead, she has to break away from her own concerns and preserve him from death countless times, because that’s the kind of person she is. And so we get our first clue that Moana is not your typical Disney princess.
Here she is as a baby:
She wants very much to pick up the beautiful shell that is being pulled back out to sea, but makes herself protect the baby turtle, instead. She’s rewarded not for who is she is, but for what she does.
And so the movie departs from typical Disney fare in a more important but less obvious way than the chicken sidekick. It’s instantly established that she’s a strong, determined, spirited girl who is different from the rest, and she’s going to end up disobeying her father and achieving something remarkable, a la Ariel/Belle/Pocahontas/Mulan/Et Al, setting herself apart from the people who want her to stay home, be good, take no chances, etc.
But! While Moana does disobey her father, she has an excellent, self-sacrificial reason for doing so. In fact, she has the same goals as her father has, and she ends up achieving what he has taught her from babyhood that it’s her duty to achieve.
So this is not yet another story where Ms. Lovely Rebel flips her hair at the patriarchy and is rewarded handsomely for betraying everyone who loves her. Instead, she is a good, loving daughter who follows her calling, rather than following her heart. Melanie Bettinelli goes into this refreshing theme in more detail. Obedience is good, but it’s in service to something greater, and sometimes you have to just go serve something greater more directly.
Which leads me to another appealing theme in Moana: There’s a lot about being chosen and being special and having a mission and fulfilling your destiny; but every single character also very clearly has free will, along with being chosen to act. Everyone makes a choice: Maui makes several choices; even the grandmother says, as she gets her (later significant) stingray tattoo, “I hope I made the right choice.”
Moana decides at one point that she can’t or won’t go on any further, and returns the magical whatsit to the ocean. She quits and tells the ocean to choose someone else. And the ocean accepts it.
She was the chosen one, but she still has a choice herself, and she is free to crap out, which she does. (Spoiler: She later changes her mind, and Does the Thing after all, and it’s awesome.) The ocean helps them and sometimes outright saves them, but they have to do a lot more helping of themselves, by deciding to be who they are meant to be.
It felt, for an animated Polynesian myth, an awful lot like how life really works.
Just as Moana discovers that she can fulfill what her father has taught her while still disobeying his explicit command (like her ancestors, finding new islands while keeping her home in mind), she learns that her mission is somewhat different (and quite a bit harder) than she originally thought. She thought she just had to fulfill the letter of the law, act out the myth, and the rest would fall into place. Turns out she has to get a lot more involved than that. This, too, felt a lot like real life.
And if we’re going to talk about the message that young girls are receiving from their cartoon heroines, I thoroughly endorse this one: Yes, you have a vocation, and yes, you need to follow it. No, that doesn’t mean everything will automatically sail smoothly toward your happy ending. At one point, Maui is horrified to find that Moana doesn’t actually know how to sail. She draws herself up and says, with feeble bravado, “I . . . am self-taught.” Yeah, that’s not good enough. Following your heart will only take you so far. You have to not only know what your goal is, but you have to learn how to get there.
This theme of free will choices leads up very neatly to the astonishing and tremendously satisfying climax of the movie, when Moana confronts the great lava demon and reminds her that she, too, has a choice.
Hot damn! That scene is so good (the above clip is only a little bit of it). Best animation I’ve seen in a long time, and very moving.
Other things I liked:
The plot was coherent, and the several themes worked well together. The only messy, unnecessary part was the coconut pirate scene. Seemed like a blatant bid for toy sales; and my old brain couldn’t understand what it was seeing, with all that hopping around and things exploding. But it didn’t last too long.
The heroine had a very pleasant singing voice. Not too nasal or brazen. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.
All of the characters were likeable and interesting. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.
It was weird. I don’t know much about Polynesian mythology, but the story was odd and occasionally harsh enough that I suspect they didn’t mess with the myth too much.
There’s no love story, at all. It’s just not that kind of story. The kid is maybe fourteen years old, and she has a lot going on. No boys need apply at this juncture.
A few minor complaints: The pacing was a little off. Some scenes were rushed and cluttered, and others were a little repetitious; but overall, it moved along well.
The mother was incredibly bland. They might as well have done the traditional Disney Dead Mother thing. She does explain her husband’s motivation for cracking down on Moana, and she helps her pack for the voyage, but anyone could have done that. This is a minor complaint, and is probably me projecting.
Several scenes throughout the movie captured something so exhilarating and joyful, I was amazed. The vision of her ancestors is a thing of beauty:
It is a captivating and rejuvenating movie. See it!
Might be scary for younger kids, depending on how sensitive they are.