Its been two years since Disney debuted Moana in theaters, and you should still be watching it.
A bold statement I know, but this film exudes the essence of celebrating marginalized cultures and elevating it to the big screen—without appropriating it. The visuals are stunning, the music is amazing (but would you expect anything less from Lin-Manuel Miranda), and the story behind Moana is beyond awe-inspiring.
Yes, it does follow the same tropes: a girl who leaves the safe comfort of her home in pursuit of finding something in the great beyond—but it is why Moana leaves that makes this story unique, and—more important—allows her story to be accessible to everyone.
We see Moana as a baby, hearing the story of creation and Maui the trickster demi-god stealing the heart of Te’ Fiti, from her Grandmother Talla. Grandmother Talla states that the heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s fishhook is still lost to this day, and the only way to save the island is to restore the heart. You maybe reading this and thinking “cheesy, overrated, boring.”
From the moment you see Moana, she is not only inquisitive but empathetic. Even as a little one, she helps a baby turtle get to the sea and escape the clenching jaws of death from hungry birds from above. The Ocean appears and grants baby Moana the heart of Te’ Fiti—but before she can hold onto it long, her father Chief Tui whisks her away to the safety of the island.
Here is where we learn the importance—and the first awesome musical number—of finding your happiness in your comfort zone. This is a message that gets preached constantly, especially to millennials. Whether it’s a job, relationship, or living choices, we all hear the same spiel of choosing the path that is safe, comfortable, and secure. Never mind the fact that you feel the call, passion, or pull to do anything else. It’s here that the conflict behind Moana lies: her family is calling her to do her duty, but her heart pulls her to the open sea.
Grandmother Talla takes Moana to a cavern that holds her ancestry’s legacy, and it’s there that she finds out why her call to the sea matters, and more importantly that her family knows who they are as a people. One of the most disparaging things is when you are a part of a body of people, but are so displaced from your ancestry that you don’t know who you are or where you come from.
Although Moana couldn’t figure out why she had such a pull to the sea, when she found out it was due to her ancestors and their ancestral lineage as voyagers, she knew there was a purpose behind her draw to sail. The beauty and originality behind this story is that Moana still takes to the sea, not because of her selfish desires but for the well-being of her family and their island.
When Grandmother Talla falls deathly ill, she reminds Moana that the ocean chose her by giving her the heart of Te’ Fiti. Her mission? To find Maui, sail him across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.
This is no small feat, especially for a young girl, and very few Disney women have accomplished an adventure like this one. Lest we forget that Moana also doesn’t know how to sail—but she doesn’t let that stop her. However, it does cause quite the struggle as we see Moana steer, fall asleep, turn over and almost sink her canoe constantly. Moana desperately asks the ocean for help, and it answers—in the form of raging sea storm that crashes her onto an island— one that just so happens to be the very same island where Maui has been stuck for hundreds of years.
This moment is extremely important for two reasons: Not letting the fear of lack of experience hold you back, and having your wishes be answered—just not in the way you expect.
If people waited until they had the experience to embark on something, we would not have many of the things we enjoy today. If an aspiring author allows lack of experience writing a full novel hold them back, we wouldn’t have many of the great creative works today. If tech moguls had let lack of experience of making computers, machines, phones keep them from pursuing their dreams, we would suffer greatly today. If an actor, doctor, historian, traveler, furniture maker (whoever) had let lack of experience keep them from embarking on their heart, then it would be a breakdown. The point being that you may not know everything you need to, but if you have at least a kernel of enough, you can grow, expand, and learn anything to help you accomplish your dream.
Not to mention, somewhere along the way help will come, which in Moana’s case was the form of brown-skinned, curly-haired, larger than life wisecracking Maui. When Moana asked the Ocean for help, she wasn’t thinking of crashing her canoe onto an island! But seeing as she couldn’t sail efficiently, it probably would have taken Moana forever to navigate her way to Maui. Instead of letting her drift endlessly in the sea, the Ocean pushed her on a giant wave to her destination (or at least this is my theory).
This experience forced Moana to toughen up, especially with her dealing with a trickster demi-god who steals the boat from under her after a 3 minute song and dance. It also proved to her that even though things don’t go your way, you don’t lay down and give up. Especially when you still manage to have landed in the place you’re supposed to be.
These principles are ones Moana learns as they continue their journey across the great sea and face many trials, pirate coconuts, narcissistic crabs, and of course the grand lava monster itself: Te’ka!
After surviving these encounters Moana, is left on the boat alone, asking the heartbreaking question: “Why did you bring me here?”
I’m sure there has been a moment in time when you’ve been placed in situation that hasn’t played out how you thought it would, or that exhausted every option you had. This internal question plagued Moana throughout the movie as she tried to keep telling herself, “the Ocean chose me, and it chose me for a reason”.
This is another mantra you tell yourself to keep you going through the hard times: you were placed under the circumstances for a reason. But when all the chips are down and you’re left with nothing, it can be extremely hard to carry on.
The spirit of Moana’s grandmother appears to help her come to her decision. To remind Moana of who she is, who her people are, and how she doesn’t have to tussle between her desire to be on the sea and help her people.
Through literally one of the most empowering and beautiful songs performed in Disney history, Moana realizes she doesn’t need magic, luck, or a man to save her. She can defeat Te’Ka and restore the heart.
She sails back across the sea to discover that Te’Ka is indeed Te’fiti —Te’Ka formed after Maui stole her heart. This is another sobering point, of how not to get lost in your bitterness, your anger, and hurt after your heart is broken, hope is shattered, or faith disappears. The same lesson Moana learned is passed onto Te’fiti: to find who you truly are, what makes you who you are, and restore your heart to happiness. You can’t help but celebrate when Moana returns, sailing victoriously back home, as she and her people take out the boats of their ancestors and sail the great ocean once again.
So, yes Moana is still a animated movie, filled with singing and jokes—but at its core it’s a story about discovering who you are, knowing where you come from, and not letting fear or doubt hold you back from whatever you dare dream to do. That with determination, and persistence, you can accomplish what you set your mind to.