This article contains spoilers.
After facing monsters, surviving storms, and learning to navigate the seas, Moana, far from her home, is told by the demigod Maui how the ocean connects every living thing in the world. Here, in western culture, we tend to view oceans as vast chasms that separate continents over great distances, but Polynesian culture sees it very differently. Water is a source of life, of livelihood; every living thing needs water to survive, and every land mass touches water on all sides. Not only that, but water is fluid – ever moving, ever changing. On maps we divide our oceans into four somewhat arbitrary different bodies, but the truth is that it’s all the same water. It’s all, as they say, connected.
But that’s not what the people of Moana’s village believe. Under the leadership of Moana’s father, Chief Waialiki, the village of Motunui has prospered in its isolation. Everything they could possibly need is right there on the island or in the shallow waters that surround it. They have fish, they have coconuts, they have chickens and pigs; what more could they want? Going beyond the reef into the larger ocean is just inviting trouble. But for Moana, the sea has always called to her, and as a plague threatens the resources that have allowed Motunui to be self-sufficient, she is forced to rediscover her people’s legacy as voyagers and set out into the wider world to save her home.
After decades of Polynesian culture being appropriated by white people for everything from theme park shows to LEGO toys, it’s refreshing to see Disney throw the weight of its media empire into a blockbuster animated film that celebrates actual Polynesian culture with the support and influence of people who are actually Polynesian. And yet, almost ironically, there’s an aspect of Polynesian culture, this movie argues, that maybe white people should get in on. Moana’s story uses Polynesian culture to craft a desperate plea for globalism, and in light of recent events, it’s one that is sorely needed.
In this past year, we’ve seen both the United States and the United Kingdom vote in favor of isolationist policy, and throughout Europe similar isolationist movements have been gaining momentum. Talk of building walls, closing borders, and limiting trade have dominated our political discourse, and Moana shows us how those ideas can take root. Chief Waialiki has seen how dangerous and unpredictable the ocean can be. Like his daughter, he once dreamed of seeing what was out there beyond his own island, but the experience cost him the life of his friend and instilled in him fear of the world beyond the reef. In his mind, whatever potential for good exists in opening up to the rest of the world is not worth the risk of putting his people in danger. It’s best to stick to what is known, what is safe.
When Moana suggests sailing beyond the reef to find better fishing grounds, her father rebukes her.
“We have one rule!”
“An old rule!”
“One that keeps us safe!”
There is comfort and the perception of safety in tradition, but as the world changes we are often forced to change with it. Isolationism is a dead end. It leads to stagnation and decay and death. The future lies in engaging with the larger world, and so too, Moana learns, does the past.
With the help of her grandmother, Moana learns of her people’s hidden legacy as wayfarers. People voyaging from island to island, to explore and settle the Pacific. While her father finds solace in the unchanging familiarity of the status quo, he ignores the older, more powerful tradition of his people, the tradition of all people.
This is the essential element of history that people so often fail to grasp: history is progress. History charts the way that humanity has strived to move forward, to explore, to create, and to learn throughout the ages. As a people, we are not satisfied by standing still, and our thirst for progress has led us to overcome oceans, mountains, and even gravity itself. The desire to see what’s beyond the horizon – the line where the sky meets the sea – is at the core of what makes us human, and it’s at the heart of what drives Moana.
But there’s a dark side to progress as well, when exploration turns to conquest, when industriousness turns to greed, when noble ends are used to justify ignoble means. And that’s where Maui comes in.
Unlike Chief Waialiki, Maui is not an isolationist figure. In fact, his actions directly benefitted the ancient wayfarers and facilitated their connection to the ocean and the wider world. However, the way he goes about facilitating globalism is somewhat different than Moana’s. Maui with his imposing physique and braggadocious swagger make him an embodiment of masculine power. He’s a hero, but he’s a hero in the old-fashioned, square-jawed mold – someone who will get the job done through pure brute strength, often doing damage along the way. In his song where he boasts about his achievements in service of humanity, notice how all of them focus on physical power and even, occasionally violence. Pulling up the sky, stealing fire, lassoing the sun, harnessing the breeze, pulling islands from the sea, killing an eel and burying its guts. Maui ultimately has noble goals, but he values power above all else. In fact, by the time Moana meets him, the only thing the motivates him is the potential to retrieve his magical fish hook and so restore his power. But progress achieved through violence and force tends to have violent ends, as we see in Maui’s attempt to steal the heart of Te Fiti in order to grant humans immortality.
In traditional Maori mythology, Maui’s efforts to bring immortality to humans had a much more sexual bent. Maui essentially rapes the sleeping guardian of the underworld by transforming himself into a worm and crawling into her vagina. The goddess awakens and closes her legs, crushing Maui in the process. Obviously that wasn’t gonna fly for a Disney flick*, so this story is altered to become the version we see in the movie. Maui attempts to obtain immortality for humans from the goddess of life rather than the goddess of death, and he does so by stealing her heart rather than, well, the other thing. But even though the details have been changed, Maui’s actions in both cases are assault. He’s attempting to obtain immortality by taking it by force.
And in both cases, he fails, dooming humanity in the process. In the traditional telling, Maui becomes the first man to die, and thus dooms the rest of humanity to mortality, and though he survives the incident in the Disney movie, he’s left robbed of his power while death and monsters bleed into the ocean, polluting every island they touch.
All Maui wanted was to use his power to make the world a better place for humans, but his power failed him, and the means he had justified led to terrible, unintentional ends. Even in his attempt to fix the mess he’s made, he still falls back on his reliance on power. Once he and Moana return to Te Fiti, he leaps into action and attempts to return the heart by force, battling the demon Te Ka in order to reach the island. Once again his power fails him as his fish hook is damaged in the battle. The source of his power is compromised and fragile, and he flees, leaving Moana behind to try and figure out how to accomplish the task that Maui, a demigod, could not.
And that’s when Moana learns the crucial companion to progress – a trait that is just as central to who she is as her desire to explore, a trait that influences and informs her desire to connect with the sea and the larger world: empathy. This sets Moana apart among her princess compatriots. She didn’t leave home to seek adventure in the great wide somewhere, to be part of a world that fascinated her or even to find a place where she could just let it go, she left home because she knew it was the only way to save her people. Yes, Moana always dreamed of the sea, but she was willing to quash that desire for the sake of being a leader for her people. But the sea continued to call her, to tell her that her people’s destiny was not to be stuck on an island devastated by famine. Her love of the sea stems from her love of her people. It’s who she is, it’s what makes her a hero, and it’s what allows her to achieve what Maui could not.
Moana uses not her strength, but her wits to get past Te Ka, and Maui, to his credit, returns, sacrificing his power not to obtain personal glory, but instead to protect someone else. As Moana races to reach Te Fiti and return the heart, she discovers that Te Fiti is gone, or more accurately, the goddess had been corrupted by Maui’s assault, transformed into Te Ka, a demon of anger and fire.
How does Moana respond? By instructing the ocean to part, allowing Te Ka to come to her. As the demon barrels through the now dry seabed, Moana sings to her, reaches out in compassion and understanding, and finally embraces her with a hongi – a Maori greeting where two people touch noses and foreheads and take a breath together, specifically a breath of life. Te Ka’s fire is extinguished by Moana’s empathy, and her true form, Te Fiti, is restored as Moana returns her heart.
Maui wanted to save humanity from death, but caused death through his use of force. Chief Waialiki wanted to protect his people from danger, but nearly guaranteed their destruction through his insistence on isolation. Moana is able to accomplish both of these things through her empathy and the burning desire for globalism that stems from it. This is our future, or at least the only path that gives us a future. We cannot isolate out of fear, we cannot let brute force and old fashioned ideals of masculine power drive us, for these things lead to death and desolation. We were voyagers once, and we can be again. A united people setting a course towards a more connected, more compassionate world. It may not be who we are, but it is who we must become.
*There is a cheeky visual reference to it, however, as Maui transforms into a worm to squeeze through the narrow passage that leads to the heart of Te Fiti. Sorry if I’ve ruined this part of the movie for anyone.