Almost everybody wonders at some point in their life if they are meant for a greater calling. Most of us never really get a good answer, and must search for one with no guarantee of success. A select few, however, find themselves in a place and time when their destiny taps them on the shoulder too strongly to ignore. Destined for greatness, theirs is a curious path, for their challenges and self-doubt are as much as anyone’s, but they don’t have the plausible deniability of uncertainty to fall back upon. Such is the path of the chosen. This works for heroic storytelling because it boils down our protagonist to an easy path to travel: go forward only, and succeed or perish. But as we see in the Disney animated feature Moana, such a path is never as easy as it looks, and answering that call, even when it’s too loud and clear to ignore, still requires a kind of heroism of its own.
Moana begins on the ancient Polynesian island of Motunui, where the people live simple, happy lives, until a blight spreads across the land, despoiling it. Chief Tui’s young daughter, Moana, suggests an expedition across the ocean to find another island to live, but Tui will have none of it; no one is to leave the island, ever. But Moana knows that her people were once great and fearless seafarers, and she is determined not just to rekindle her people’s legacy, but to solve the mystery of the cursed ocean. For she possesses a magical stone given to her by the ocean itself that is really the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, stolen a thousand years before by the trickster demigod Maui. Moana aims to return the heart to Te Fiti and cure this spreading darkness, but she must at first journey far from home with no skill at sailing, only the questionable companionship of a shy pig, what is easily the stupidest chicken in motion picture history, and eventually Maui himself—who proves to be less helpful than self-serving. But Moana is no pushover. She enlists Maui’s help, outwits weird coconut pirates and a giant crab, and eventually confronts Te Ka, the volcano god who once defeated Maui and who is the source of the doom spreading across the ocean. With each struggle, the less sure Moana is that she is up to the task. But the ocean chose her for a reason, and Moana knows that to save her people, she must become like the ocean itself: relentless, unstoppable, and uncontained.
This is one of Disney’s recent animated movies that feature strong female characters who might be royalty, but they sure ain’t princesses. Aware that their female audience is way overdue for a roster of heroines with whom they can identify not as figures needing saving, but as figures who do the saving, Disney has put its considerable efforts into a new wave of movies that aim to deliver on that front. With Moana, Disney especially sticks its landing with a story that deftly blends heroic archetypes, modern sensibilities, and a deep appreciation for the power and beauty of Polynesian culture.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker created a trust of Polynesian historians and cultural experts so that Moana would not simply be a Western fairy tale reskinned with a veneer of Somebody Else’s Culture. As such, Moana evokes ancient Polynesian myth and the very real historical question of why ancient Polynesians—some of the greatest seafarers in human history—suddenly stopped exploring the ocean thousands of years ago. The end result is a rare bit of storytelling that introduces much of the audience to a culture by celebrating it on behalf of the rest of the audience. Delivered through Disney’s time-honored tradition of snappy musical numbers and stunning visuals, Moana is not just a fine piece of cultural ambassadorship, but a piece of art that whispers to us in the same voice we hear when we listen to the ocean and it beckons us to seek its mysteries.
What makes these deeper themes so accessible is the perfect execution of Moana’s surface details. This is a movie of rare beauty, with breathtaking color, exciting action sequences, and a soundtrack that might be eye-rolling in its predictability if it all wasn’t so delightful to listen to. Present are all of the typical beats of a musical: the establishment song, the longing song, the comic relief song, but where they are inserted in the plot and how they are performed elevate them well above time-killing music. They are as integral to the overall effort as any other part of it.
But the greatest thing about Moana is, of course, its characters, from Moana’s spry and maverick grandmother, to the arrogant Maui, to Moana herself. While Maui very nearly steals the show one too many times as a charismatic, superheroic jerk, the movie thankfully rests on Moana’s shoulders. At first, she is the audience’s avatar as she goes through a series of introductions to a world she should already know, but does not. Later, as Moana comes into her own, she alone sees what must be done to save her world, and summons the courage to follow through. Refusing to accept the world that is given to her, she endures no small hardships to fulfill her destiny not by destroying something, but by healing it.
The moment of truth comes when Moana hits her low point and renounces her quest. We know she’ll give up on this adventure at least once before completing it, but it’s handled with such heart, timing and poignancy that it doesn’t break the spell. Of course, Moana rallies. And of course, we cheer when she does. And why? Because by the time Moana returns Te Fiti’s heart to its rightful place, we see a person who has been underestimated by everyone around her except by the only one who really counts: herself. That’s the kind of hero we all can use.