See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me.
And no one knows, how far it goes.
Recently, I went to see Disney’s Moana, with original songs by the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda, and it was everything that my soul has ever needed. Here are 5 reasons.
[SPOILER ALERTS SHOULD GO WITHOUT SAYING BY NOW]
- Moana needed contentment AND desire.
From the first shots of the film, it establishes that Moana has a desire for the sea. Even as a child, she can’t help the sea calling to her, asking her to go into it.This is a theme repeated in many coming-of-age movies, the first coming to mind would be The Lion King 2 (which I will viciously defend as an awesome Disney sequel.) In it, Kiara has to balance the responsibilities of being the heiress to the throne and her heart’s desire for Kovu. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle has to balance her desire for adventure with an acceptance of a role in a small community.
Where Moana succeeds these others, however, is in that it argues that the island really is good. Unlike Belle (whose contemptuous outlook on the simple peasantry of her town is probably the reason no one likes her), Moana likes the island. It’s not a prison in the sense that she just wants to burn it down and run away.
She understands and accepts her responsibilities as the chief’s daughter and the head of the island. Her impulse to leave the island is not only rooted in her desire for adventure and grandeur, but by a desire to help the community in which she lives (i.e. getting them some fish.) This teaches viewers that self-actualization and common good are not either/or equations, but rather both/and ones.
- Lack of experience is not a valid reason to stay home.
One of the chief impediments to Moana’s success is simply her own ineptitude. She doesn’t know how to sail, she’s never left the island, etc. The sea called her to it, but even though it’s an animated character, it won’t always be there to quell storms off the coast that threaten Moana and her mission.
Despite this, Moana presses on, safe in the knowledge that she can learn the lessons necessary to accomplish her goals. A friend of mine, who teaches children guitar, once remarked that the most difficult thing about teaching young children is their inability to imagine that one day they will be better at the thing they’re doing now. All they understand is that the F chord makes their hand hurt, and they’re unable to reach into the future and realize it won’t always hurt.
Another way of looking at continuing in the face of your own ignorance is to paraphrase what Elizabeth Gilbert noted in her 2015 book, “Big Magic”, which is that incompetence is a trait that often convinces women out of pursuing certain goals, but one that rarely stops men. A woman will waffle on applying for a job if she is only 79% qualified to do it, while a man who is 55% qualified is more likely to roll the dice and see what happens.
Moana overcomes this through the true belief that though your goals outweigh your skills, they can be acquired in the future and the fact that you don’t possess them right now does not make them goals that are not worth having.
- Everything that you have is an asset.
The first time that Moana tries to sail out on the ocean, she is in the middle of singing a song, so probably not the best time to try rigorous nautical tasks for the first time. Who knew. But throughout the movie, she continues to use everything that she has as an asset.
That dumb chicken was useless from the beginning of the movie all the way to the end, and they should’ve eaten it like that islander suggested, but Moana used him. Maui was contemptuous, tricky, and uncooperative for most of the movie, but Moana understood that he was part of how to accomplish her goals, so she made do.
In every situation, whether she was without a boat, a partner, or a way of escape, she took stock of the situation and made whatever was in her possession an asset.
- Maui’s treatment serves as a refutation to Dude-Bro-ism.
Maui is obsessed with his hair, his physique, and his accomplishments, but Moana makes very clear from the start that those don’t matter to her. Upon further reflection, Maui has to confront the fact that some of his accomplishments (like stealing the heart) were actually not accomplishments at all and hurt a lot of people.
Maui’s demeanor, his stance, his fixation on body image, and his love of adulation (as proven by the song “You’re Welcome”) all make him the perfect receptacle for a modern picture of Dude-Bro-ism, which congratulates itself on giving people help they don’t need and don’t benefit from, that treats women as nothing more than adoring fans and annoying if they’re not, and creates a self-sustaining cycle of masculinity that is consistently proven and maintained.
However, Moana gives Maui a chance to reconsider his actions. The most helpful thing that she does for him is to tell him that his identity is not tied into the things that he can do, but in the person that he is. It’s a powerful kickback to a cultural narrative that states that the two things that define men most are sexual conquest and material gain. The most realistic part of the story is how long it takes Maui to understand the lesson.
- Moana doesn’t have a love interest.
Somewhere in between swashbuckling pirates, Kiera Knightley had enough time swoon over Orlando Bloom, and this is a theme repeated in almost every major movie. To be fair, I don’t think that the inclusion or exclusion of a love interest makes a movie feminist or not, but what people are reacting to is probably that the love interest has the ability to dominate the storyline, to the exclusion of other competing interests.
In a simply practical sense, would we believe that Moana – playing with sentient water, wrangling a demigod, battling a literal lava monster, and trying to stop darkness from enveloping the entire world she knows – has time for a love life? It’s more than fair to assume she’s got a lot of stuff on her mind that isn’t pheromones.
The exclusion of a love interest allows us to focus on the issues most pressing to Moana at the moment, and they’re some pretty big issues. In this case, it’s a solid narrative choice especially considering point #1, which is that Moana has nothing to run away from. She doesn’t seek to escape her community, she seeks to help it, and maybe when she’s done with that, she can get a boyfriend.
Congrats to the Disney team for knocking another one out of the park. Moana was inspiring, empowering, and excellent, and I hope to see more media like this in the future.
Feel free to comment, like, share, and follow below!