What’s really interesting about Moana is how dedicated it is to fitting the title heroine in a traditionally male narrative. That is the brilliance of this movie. She’s not a princess–she’s “the daughter of the chief.” Unlike Mulan, who alters her destiny by dressing as a man, or Tangled/Frozen, which are at times deconstructionist for the sake of being deconstructionist, Moana is treated equal to boys right out of the gate.
On the other hand, Disney knows what it’s doing. The movie doesn’t harp on the fact that Moana is a girl, but it doesn’t ignore it either. Though the quest to feel validated, self-reliant and significant is tried and true for many male heroes, there are some subtle moments–particularly in some of the names Maui calls Moana–that imply it is more impressive and celebratory that Moana succeeds because she is a girl. This acknowledgement of overcoming societal challenges is what people mean by the phrase: “Girl Power.”
Moana is sassy, strong, and beautiful–with long curly hair. She doesn’t learn to fight–Maui teaches her to sail. None of the characters really use violence. The plot focuses more on exploration, magic, and a host of colorful and wacky animals–including the world’s dumbest chicken and my personal favorite–a giant crustacean David Bowie impersonator. She wants to please her dad, and her biggest mentor is her grandmother. The movie ends with the restoration of a life-giving plant goddess and Moana placing a pink shell on top of a pile of her forefathers’ heritage stones.
Yet no one questions her ability to lead the island. She never marries or has any romantic interests. And Moana’s desires and so much of her dialogue could easily be recorded with a male character without any significant changes to the story. I think any kid would want to be strong like Moana.
This is frankly an adorable movie, and one of the most genuinely fun and funny kids movies I’ve seen in a while. Though fitted through the story beats of many other Disney adventure films (like Hercules or Aladdin), the mythos of Moana is surprisingly complex. Sometimes, there might be a little too much storytelling and exposition. But as a high fantasy buff, I appreciated it. Not to mention how important storytelling is to Polynesian culture, and the fact that all the legends are told via animated tattoos on the biceps of Dwayne Johnson’s character (Maui).
What is also interesting about the movie is how it deviates from the common path of “Power through friendship” in favor of “Power comes from within.” Throughout are beautifully composed shots of stark, terrible loneliness. Moana’s best friends are a chicken and the open sea. Maui was rejected by his own parents, and copes with that pain through relentless egotism and affirmation through literally hugging and talking to himself. The stakes are high, with Moana leaving behind all her family and ostensible worldly happiness, but the villain is hardly personal. Instead, Moana and Maui seem to face down all the chaotic forces of fate itself with the power of what is either human willpower or that nebulous word–“Faith.” They live in a world of epic myth that parallels the uncaring world of real life, and their armament is a sense of personal destiny. That is the central conflict of the movie. Not revenge or lust for power. It is Existentialism Vs. Self-Determination.
In the end, randomness is destroyed and order is restored. Maui can only defeat his insecurity through personal confidence. The goddess of the sea chose Moana for her internal bravery, which she uses to approach the fiery villain (at risk to her life) and remind it that it has a good heart. Of all the lessons this movie could have decided to teach–especially to young girls–the most important was the importance of knowing who you are.