I have seen Moana about a thousand times now. I absolutely love it and I think it has surpassed Brave my favourite Disney princess movie, which is no small feat because I adore Merida.
If you somehow missed seeing Moana, the movie follows the life of a young Polynesian woman — daughter of the chief — who keeps being drawn to the sea. As a young girl, her grandmother tells her a story of the shapeshifting demigod Maui stealing the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, in which Te Fiti disappears, a volcanic demon called Te Kā attacks Maui and the demigod loses both the heart and his magical fishhook that allows him to shapeshift. The loss of Te Fiti’s heart causes the islands to become poisoned, and eventually, Moana’s island becomes affected by the blight. The ocean offers Moana the lost heart of Te Fiti and she realizes, with the help of her grandmother, that it is up to her to find Maui and return the heart of Te Fiti to save her people.
The first thing I would like to give this movie credit for is the cast full of actors with Polynesian heritage. The only actor I was able to find without any Polynesian background is Alan Tudyk, who “voices” — for lack of a better word — Heihei the rooster (and “Villager #3”, but that’s a very minor role). Disney has had a lot of problems with inclusivity in the past, but they deserve a great big cookie for going above and beyond expectations for not only making a great movie about a young Polynesian woman and having a cast full of actors actually from that heritage.
Another thing I love about this movie is Moana’s relationship with her grandmother. I had a close relationship with my own grandma before she passed away in 2013, so movies with a strong grandmother-granddaughter bond always make me happy. Gramma Tala’s character was very well done and I loved how she played the foil to her son and Moana’s father, Chief Tui. The self-professed “village crazy lady” supports Moana’s love of the water and shows the young woman the truth of their ancestors: that they were once voyageurs, discovering new islands and spreading out across the ocean. After Gramma Tala’s death and her spirit reappears in the form of a stingray, just the way she hoped it would, is such a powerful moment in the movie.
The way that the animators gave life and personality to the ocean itself was quite clever. The water is a character in its own right, and even though it never speaks, it adds so much to the plot. Mostly humour, but there are moments when this movie needs humour, because for all that it is targeted at children, there are some dark parts and deep underlying messages.
Finally, let’s talk about the underlying messages. The male demigod Maui took the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. Even, though he took the heart for an arguably good reason — as a gift for humanity — he committed an act of violence against Te Fiti. The female volcano demon Te Kā then attacks Maui and causes him to lose his magical fish hook and the heart of Te Fiti. The act of violence has the immediate effect of poisoning the waters and the islands and Moana sets of on her journey to find Maui and convince him to set things right. She believes that it is up to Maui to fix things, since he made the mistake in the first place. However, it is Moana who realizes that Te Kā is actually Te Fiti. Not only did Maui’s unintended violence cause the islands and waters to be poisoned, but it also changed Te Fiti from a peaceful nature goddess to an angry and violent demon. Moana offers the heart to Te Kā and she transforms into Te Fiti again. The underlying message is that women need to help other women who have been hurt — even unintentionally — by a man. The way that this message is weaved throughout the story, it doesn’t so much hit you in the face, but it gives you pause and causes you to think. If more children’s media had underlying messages like this that taught young girls to support each other, I think that would be a beautiful thing.