As Moana’s grandmother retells: “In the beginning there was only ocean until the mother island emerged with the greatest power ever known–it could create life.” The mother island Te Fili is beautiful and serene – an all-powerful mother-creator. However, it is beset by monsters and Maui, the disruptive trickster, steals her heart amid menacing music and a glaring green light. “For generations this peaceful island has been home to our family, but beyond our reef a great danger is coming. Legend tells of a hero who will journey to find the Maui, and together the demigod Maui, and together they will save us all.”
Grandmother: The legends are true. Someone will have to go.
Chief Tui: There are no monsters. No reason to leave the island.
She is right and he hopes he can ignore what’s happening – a strategy that will only make the world worse. Likewise the mother’s defeatist talk – “Sometimes who we wish we were, what we wish we could do—it’s just not meant to be” – is a challenge the heroine must rise above.
Hikar, a demon of earth and fire, defeated Maui and he lost the heart in the ocean. Hikar represents the grief and vengeance of the goddess – the stronger side used to defend herself in times of loss and war. As she lashes out in fury, a spreading black cloud fills the world.
Moana, among the toddlers, is the only one responding to the story with bright-eyed curiosity and joy. She is the innocent but she’s already a savior. She begins as a baby, protecting a baby turtle with a protective leaf over it. In doing so, she turns down the pretty pink shell that is a physical reward, like a shiny toy. Impressed by her goodness, the ocean offers her a pathway of pink shells, along with a glorious ocean tour and finally the lost heart. This is a green glowing stone marked with a spiral. Of course, this entire encounter represents a toddler’s make believe more than anything the heroine remembers sincerely.
Moana’s feminine symbols are perfect. In fact, “moana” is the Polynesian word for ocean, emphasizing her destiny as a voyager. The sea is the source of all life and thus a feminine power, with Moana cast as goddess in training. As for the heart, green is the color of immaturity and growth, the fertility and health of the land. “The spiral was connected with the idea of death and rebirth: entering the mysterious earth womb, penetrating to its core, and passing out again by the same route” (Walker 14). It is the image of women’s mysteries, or of journeying to the deep secrets hidden within the self and the world.
Pink conch shells are actually a symbol of the woman’s sex organs, emphasizing that good-girl Moana will not be tempted by sex but only by the heart. Pink suggests femininity and also sensuality, because it’s similar to flesh tones. A shell, especially the cowrie shell, represented the feminine gate of life as far back as 20,000 BC (Campbell the Masks of God: Primitive Mythology 376). The cowrie was used as a feminine symbol to avert the evil eye in India, with a name likely derived from the goddess Kauri. “Cowries were used throughout the Middle East, Egypt, the South Pacific, and the Mediterranean countries as charms for healing, fertility, rebirth, magical power or good luck” (Walker 507-508). Symbolically, the conch is a vessel filled with the water of life and thus a womb symbol. The spiral conch-shell symbolizes infinite space that gradually expands in a clockwise direction. Thus it’s the Human Journey through birth, life, resurrection, and more. The shell’s hard casing protects life, while its pearly luster and aquatic nature connect with puirity. In Buddhism the conch shell’s call is meant to awaken one from ignorance, and signals victory over suffering. In Chinese Buddhism, the conch shell signifies a prosperous journey, and in Islam it represents hearing the divine world. All these resonate with Moana.
Moana’s actress, Auli’i Cravalho is the youngest Disney Princess voice in history, being only 14 years old while filming (16 by the time the film came out). One critic describes her as “a fully rounded character with an idealized yet believable body, flaws that she acknowledges and fights, and a resourcefulness that makes her admirable even when she’s failing” (Robinson).
Only 14 when she performed Moana, having never done any film acting before, Cravalho is remarkably self-possessed, with a bold singing voice—perfect for the role. In addition, the tunes (by the harmonious trio of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Disney regular Mark Mancina and Samoan singer Opetaia Foa’i) are stirring, and the gorgeous visuals make Motunui an inviting place to dwell indeed. Lush, colorful and intricately detailed, the CG imagery is captivating throughout the movie, from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the sea.. (Gingold)
Moana has two living, loving parents in an unusual break for Disney. More unusually, she has a real female mentor. Her grandmother proudly describes herself as the “village crazy lady.” Gramma Tala (Rachel House) teaches her to dance by the ocean side that “misbehaves” like them and celebrate her feminine gifts. The ocean is the source of feminine power, bringing endless fertility and connecting the islands. As Moana accepts her role as future chief, she struggles to protect her island as the coconuts die and the fish vanish. Finally, she accepts that as Chosen One she will have to quest to save them all.
The queen goddess in mythology was not a warrior but a creator, the earth itself worshipped as the Supreme Mother. Imitating her, the girl becomes a life-giver and protector, a goal which heroines risk everything to achieve. Dorothy saves Toto over and over, for he is her most childlike and sparkling self, her vulnerable side most in need of protection. Lyra of The Golden Compass quests for her best friend Roger; Bella Swan rescues her true love, daughter, and vampire clan; Coraline saves her parents. Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her sister, and Tris risks everything for her own parents and brother. These repeated rescues symbolize building a family and fighting to the death to defend it. By accomplishing her task, the heroine grows from child to mother-protector, ready to take her place as head of the household. (Frankel, Chosen One, Kindle Locations 204-210).
The film offers the sensitive cultural imagery of The Lion King or Elena of Avalor along with the impetuous restless teen of The Little Mermaid and the irritable buddy comedy of Frozen. Unlike almost every Disney Princess, she doesn’t sacrifice everything for love of a man but finds a way to be an independent heroine. “Directors Ron Clements and John Musker are veterans of the ’90s Disney Renaissance (they crafted Aladdin, Hercules and The Little Mermaid). But that era’s girl-power animation also feels nimbly rebooted here, via Moana’s Pocahontas-style leadership and Mulan pluck” (Stables).
Unlike other Disney heroines she doesn’t have elaborate costume changes into princess gowns – she’s an adventure heroine who gets the job done and climbs mountains and swims all in the same sturdy outfit. Moana wears an elaborately patterned white skirt and a coral colored top and sash – the pink of femininity blended with the red of the mature woman. “Coral was called the ocean’s tree of life, its red color attributed to life-giving feminine blood” (Walker 507). The white skirt suggests the immature virgin just beginning. As From Girl to Goddess, a book exploring the stages of the heroine’s journey, says of the mythic heroine: “She is a maiden (white) longing to become a grown woman (red). To accomplish this, she faces death and gains powers of the spirit (black)” (Frankel 57). This last comes from the red and black lava goddess.
Moana’s father Tui (Temuera Morrison) intends for her to be “the next great chief” with a red feather crown – an unusual role indeed for the Disney heroine, once seen with almost no one besides Elsa. She’s filled with yearning to strike out and explore what adventure might await beyond the forbidden reef that surrounds and protects them like a wall. Her father insists she has responsibilities at home. However, as he guides her to the highest mountain where his forefathers have each piled a stone in a tower of masculine pride and lineage, it’s clear he intends her to take a man’s path. “No coronation in the latest Disney-princess movie Moana happens. Still, the future of the titular princess is insinuated by contemplative shots of Moana staring at an elaborate headdress, the tribal equivalent of a crown, with both trepidation and anticipation” (Cao).
The heroine of Brave tries to do this for herself, rejecting marriage to shoot her bow. (In fact, these are the only Disney Princesses who aren’t retelling a classic fairytale or finding a love interest.) But Moana feels a feminine yearning for herself – being not a king but a queen. She takes the men’s boat out, trying to emulate her father’s journey beyond the reef (pig companion in tow) to find fish for her people. She tries to solve their problems and protect them as she once aided the turtle, but she realizes she will need a greater act of heroism. And as her father stays home where it’s safe as the world dies, she will need a far different path. “You told me to help our people. This is how I help our people,” she insists.
Her grandmother shows her what she lacks by guiding her to the feminine sacred place of the island – a cave. A cave symbolizes the dark innermost place of the self – all the person has repressed or forgotten. Within, Moana sounds the drum (another feminine symbol, suggesting the power of the earth and the heartbeat) and discovers her people’s forgotten legacy – they sailed all the oceans joyously – men women and children. Together they would settle for a time then travel ever on in a great golden fleet with dolphins playing around them. “To protect our people voyaging was forbidden, and we have forgotten who we are,” her grandmother tells her. Among all the ships, she sees a small one with the heart’s spiral shape – the symbol of a woman’s labyrinthine journey into the spirit. Her perfect vessel awaits.
The grandmother gives her the heart and tells her her ocean encounter was a true one. “I was that there that day. The ocean chose you.” As she adds, “The question you keep asking yourself—who are you meant to be?” She insists a hero must take Maui to the goddess to return the heart.
As her grandmother lies ill and likely dying, she gives Moana her locket to keep the green heart in. The locket is blue mother-of-pearl, perhaps a mussel – color and shell are both feminine symbols of the mature goddess-woman as are the pearls that it’s strung between. “The pearl signifies humility, purity, innocence, and a retiring spirit,” Jones notes in History and Mystery of Precious Stones as he describes the “modest splendor and purity of the jewel” (94, 113). They were said to be a combination of masculine and feminine, male fire and female water.
Blue, the color of sky and sea, represents the life-filled goddess. “Blue has also come to symbolize purity: Christians associate it with the Virgin Mary, and it is the Roman Catholic liturgical color used on her feast days” (Shepherd 344). She is always pictured as wearing a blue gown with red scarf or cloak.
Moana leaves behind Pua the Pig, her childhood pet who suggests the safe family life (and perhaps a willingness to be lied to as she assures him she’s not eating pork). Instead, she takes along Hei-Hei the rather insane rooster, as she insists, “Sometimes our strengths lie beneath the surface. Far beneath.” People have hidden talents buried deep within, much as she does. “Every winged being is a symbol of spiritualization,” as the mind reaches like the bird for the heights (Cirlot 26). Though Hei-Hei is mad and can’t actually fly (or swim), he suggests breaking boundaries and finding freedom. At the climax, she drops the spiral stone and he saves it for her, contributing a moment of aid at just the right time. As she sails, her grandmother as manta ray sails in her wake like a beautiful glowing butterfly, symbol of the soul.
As her grandmother insisted, Moana finds Maui at last (voiced by Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson), only to discover he’s completely full of himself. “Do you who Maui is? The greatest demigod that ever lived, who stopped the sun, who pulled up islands out of the sea, and battled monsters. Do you know why I know all this? That’s because, I am Maui!” Dressed in green leaves with luxuriant black hair and black tattoos, he’s covered in the fertility symbols of the wise, mature creation force – one whom Moana must learn from. His small Maui tattoo, over his heart, appears to be the voice of his conscience or his shadow, expressing the thoughts and impulses he keeps bottled up. His constantly changing tattoos emphasize his shapeshifter powers. His favorite form, that of a hawk, is a quintessentially masculine image. The hawk suggests swiftness and keen sight with great skill at the hunt – it’s a symbol of striving for great heights.
“In another Disney Princess first, theirs is an odd-couple adventure rather than a love story, more True Grit than true romance” (Stables). As the powerful ancient god, he’s skeptical of the “self-taught” heroine.
Moana: The ocean sent me.
Maui: You’re what, 8? Can’t sail? Perfect choice.
Moana: It chose me.
He also acknowledges the film tradition they both come from, noting snarkily, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
“He gives the movie a jolt of vainglorious energy that both contrasts with and complements Moana’s earnestness” (Gingold). While he sings about his greatness, he shuts her in a cave and takes her boat. She climbs out of the cave using her grit and tells him firmly, “I am Moana of Motusi. You will board my boat and restore the heart to Te Fili.” Maui self-centeredly retorts that he stole the heart as a gift for mankind and they should be grateful. It takes his journey with Moana for him to realize he was wrong to take the goddess’s power and that his success shouldn’t come from another’s possessions.
When he first arrives, the heart seems to be one more trophy from one more adventure, like his celebratory tattoos. Around his neck are more toothy trophies and he has a crowd of fans…at least as tattoos. He signs Moana’s paddle, her chosen tool, with his fishhook symbol and the heart that has become hers, suggesting her journey from the sea to the goddess’s island. A paddle, like a wand or a hand, suggests impacting her world and allowing her to travel.
Maui’s chosen weapon is a giant swordlike fishhook – without it he feels completely impotent and can’t exercise any of his superpowers. “Without my hook, I am nothing,” he insists. By contrast, Moana’s subtle, all-pervasive ocean magic (or rather the ocean as her helper) keeps popping her back onto the ship, letting her outmaneuver even the ancient god of sailing. She taunts him with the heart, adding, “Are you afraid of it?” in fact, he is, realizing the awesome creation force of the goddess – he can steal it, but not understand or truly own it.
She learns to persuade him, leaning on his need for adoration to convince him to quest with her:
Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and the sea, let’s save the world.
Maui: I’m not going on a mission with some kid.
Moana: You’d be a hero. That’s what you’re all about, right?
[Maui imagines crowds chanting his name and hears the chant]
Moana: Maui, Maui, Maui.
[we see that it’s Moana quietly chanting his name]
Moana: You’re so amazing.
When she realizes he’s a far better sailor than she is, she persuades him to teach her (of course, when she’s unsuccessful, the ocean intervenes and even hits him in the rear end with a sleeping dart). She high-fives the ocean for its help. Meanwhile, Maui teaches her to be more than a princess—to be a Wayfinder with the ancient powers of her people.
She doesn’t even need a love interest to define her story. Maui, a tattooed trickster with all Johnson’s gleaming-toothed charm, is compelling, but he’s also ageless and inhuman, so it’s a relief when he doesn’t start giving his traveling companion the hey-baby eye. Moana is all about familiar patterns, refined to their ultimate forms, and presented with a satisfying energy and power. But Musker and Clements also have the sense to pick and choose which tropes make sense for their story. As perfectly as these old beats work in this new context, Moana functions as well as it does because the story team ultimately focused on finding everything about Disney stories that worked in 2016, and improving everything that didn’t. (Robinson)
She insists she’s the chosen one and “the ocean chose me for a reason.” Maui debates that the ocean is flighty and unrealistic – common criticism aimed at women. As with the father-grandmother clash, Maui’s patriarchal attitude versus the ocean’s small interventions and gentle pushes soon fail. “I have no idea why the ocean chose me. You’re right. But my island is dying and it’s just me and you,” she insists. She also discovers Maui’s famous generosity for mankind hides a deep insecurity that gives him much more depth: He was abandoned by his human parents so he seeks humanity’s love.
Moana: You did everything for them so they’d love you.
Maui: It was never enough.
Moana insists: “The gods aren’t the ones who make you Maui, you are,” but it takes him some time to learn this lesson.
To regain his hook they journey to a towering stone island. There, Maui employs his superbreath then chants and dances on a stone face which opens and swallows them.
Moana: We’re going to the realm of monsters.
Maui: Don’t worry, it’s a lot further down than it looks.
[Maui jumps in and screams with glee, Moana keeps looking down the opening]
Maui: I am still falling!
They land in a psychedelic realm of monsters where Moana knows nothing. This is a typical journey for the heroine, dragging her to the tall patriarchal tower where she has no power.
In many fairytales from Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to “The Six Swans,” the heroine’s most dire struggle takes place high in the prince’s castle, far from the mysterious protection of the forest or ocean. This, like the wicked witch’s castle or the Death Star, is the world of order and tyranny, where the young heroine is truly helpless. Other heroines descend to the underworld: Lucy and Susan witness the White Witch murdering Aslan deep in the forest, while Lyra Belacqua crosses into the land of the dead. Katniss falls unconscious at the climax of all three of her own books. (Frankel, Chosen One, Kindle Locations 336-340).
Enemies include the greedy glittery giant crab Tamatoa and the violent but semi-inept coconut people, the Kakamora. The first is an enormous god with an enormous treasure pile; the latter construct massive ships. Both thus are symbols of patriarchy. Moana defeats both with agility and cleverness.
With an eco-conscious story favouring redemption over outright villainy, there’s just a bit less tugging on your heartstrings. As Disney baddies go, Jermaine Clement’s giant treasure-crazed crab Tamatoa is a ball of fun (‘Shiny’, his Bowie-ish disco celebration of all things bling, is a highlight). But he’s no Ursula the Sea Witch. (Stables)
While the coconuts and fish are dying because of a spreading evil and heartlessness, it resembles an oil slick. Thus a subtle environmental image appears as well.
The pair fight the lava god in the climactic battle with Moana providing the support for Maui’s heroic hawk flight. However, his brute force approach fails and his fishhook is damaged. At once, he decides that another blow would destroy all his power and he will not try again. When he leaves her, Moana’s courage and certainty vanish. She tells the ocean to choose someone else and returns the totem. As she despairs, her grandmother comes to her in a beautiful blue glowing manta ray and offers to guide her home. However, as her grandmother adds, “Scars can heal and reveal just where you are.” At this moment of comfort, Moana reconsiders. She reclaims the heart and her mantra changes to one of solo power: “I am Moana of Motusi. Aboard my boat, I will restore the heart to Te Fili.”
Though Maui’s frightened to fight and risk destroying his hook, though he does the right thing in the end. “Moana, I got your back! It’s Maui time!” he announces and flies into the crucial fight. “Hook, no hook, I’m Maui,” he concludes, basing his heroism on more than possessions.
“What resonates strongest as the story concludes, however, is its heart—as embodied by its title character, who forges her own path among both her people and her Disney sisterhood” (Gingold). Moana solves the riddle when she sees the ancient spiral on the lava goddess’s chest. “Let her come to me,” she tells the ocean. She faces this deadly force and responds with sympathy and love, comforting her and returning her heart to the spiral’s center. “They have stolen the heart from inside you. This is not who you are. You know who you are.” Her heart restored, the goddess turns green and loving once again.
The goddess sends her home in a pink and yellow flower covered boat. These are a reward, celebrating her feminine power as her island’s new heroine.
The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may rebound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds.4 Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 193.
Back home, Moana lays a pink conch on the stone pillar, acknowledging the tradition but making her own feminine mark. She then takes her people back to the ocean where she teaches both her prents navigation. In a pink feather dress, she’s achieved the next stage as, perhaps not a chief, but an explorer, leader, and teacher.
Unlike Queen Elsa, Moana does not undergo a coronation. She does become a wayfinder for her people to teach them to sail toward the horizon. But even without seeing Moana reach the status of chieftain, the audience understands that she heads a mile closer to her ascension. She does not wear the traditional headdress introduced in the opening, but she does wear a flower wreath, her own crown, suggesting that she both cherishes and transcends her traditions.
Moana reminds us that the Disney heroines—some of royal birth, ordinary bookworms, maidens—should be allowed to outgrow the title of Princess and the limitations instilled upon them. (Cao)
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Cao, Caroline. “Moana Won’t Stay A Princess Forever.” BirthMoviesDeath, Nov. 30, 2016 http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/11/30/moana-wont-stay-a-princess-forever
Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Routledge, 1971.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey in Myth and Legend. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2010.
Gubgold, Michael. “Movie Review: MOANA Joins The Pantheon of Great Disney Heroines.” BirthMoviesDeath, Nov. 18, 2016 http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/11/18/movie-review-moana-joins-the-pantheon-of-great-disney-heroines
Jones, William History and Mystery of Precious Stones. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880.
Robinson, Tasha. “Moana review: after 80 years of experiments, Disney has made the perfect Disney movie” The Verge, 26 Nov. 2016. http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/26/13749060/moana-film-review-walt-disney-animation-dwayne-johnson-diversity
Shepherd, Rowena and Rupert. 1000 Symbols. New York: The Ivy Press, 2002.
Stables, Kate. MOANA REVIEW: “WAVE-TAMING MOANA GETS a TRUE HERO’S JOURNEY IN THIS SOUTH SEAS STUNNER” 28 Nov. 2016. http://www.gamesradar.com/moana-review/
Thomas, William and Kate Pavitt. The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems. London: William Rider & Son, Ltd., 1922. The Sacred Texts Archive. http://www.sacred-texts.com/sym/bot.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.