Moana: A Ballad of Globalism versus Isolationism?

June 29, 2017

  Note: this article takes a Disney movie way too seriously. Be advised. 


The question lying at the core of Moana's identity is "Who am I?" And the film brings her identity quest to bear on the audience through the trope of generational conflict. At first inundated by her father's adages about the safety and abundance of their island, Moana inherits the role of island princess with little quarrel. However, a seachange has long ago stirred the young voyager's soul, and she begins to not only yearn for a life outside of her home, but question the very essence of its isolated existence. 


Herein is the question below the current of Disney's newest sweeping success: shall Moana stay rooted to the island, safe but limited, or seek out the dangers of the wider world? 


As usual, Disney builds this film in layers. At the surface, it is classic tale about identity, family, and finding home abroad, but as we dive further, Disney seems to be offering a much more wide-reaching message about the dangers of isolationism. 


Let's take, for instance, the island itself, which has stood on its self-sustaining, fish-and-forage traditions for generations. On its plush, green surface the people are filled with spirit and music. However, as we "consider the coconut," we find that the island has begun to turn to shadow. And while the film offers the black evil of Te Ka as a scapegoat, perhaps it is really the years of overfishing and unsustainable farming practices which have brought the island's resources to a halt. 


Consider, too, the derivation of their beliefs, such as in the opening scene where Grandmother explains the origins of the earth to the children. The tradition of oral storytelling is well-practiced here, yet her misreading of who "Maui" is, and his intentions, are byproducts of a bad game of telephone. By casting Maui as a destroyer of men rather than as the champion we learn him to be, they essentially hold themselves hostage on the island.


Yet, most dangerous is the father's fear of the outside world. In using the defenses of tradition, utopia and mythology, he keeps everyone on the island captive, especially his daughter. 


A twist of fate sends Moana sailing into the unknown, and of course the movie is filled with delights on each stop. She first meets Maui, the lovable egoist voiced by Dwayne Johnson who, too, has layers below his ink-covered surface. She then battles coconut pirates, an stand-in for the actual pirates that abound on the great sea. On land, in the island of Lalotai, she meets, and battles with, the great crab Tamatoa. Voiced by "Flight of the Concords" actor Jemaine Clement, his covetousness of all things "shiny" and gold is akin to other colonial ancestors, who reaped and pillaged and built kingdoms, yet now stand atop a mass of their own (mis)fortunes, dedicated to keeping anyone untoward from venturing in.


And in the pinnacle battle, she fights Te Ka, and realizes the source of the darkness on the islands was really a lack of knowledge about the world itself. She does not need to battle this monster, only restore its heart through language and love. 


The two pinnacle moments in the film, however, come during Moana's lilting renditions of "Who Am I" as she makes two great discoveries: her ancestors were once voyagers, and she, too, in the middle of the ocean, alone and searching, is one as well. These knowledges are twofold: she realizes her yearning for the outside world is not a misprint, but rather ingrained in her very DNA, and it is her destiny to bring voyaging back to her home. 


As a gift for salvaging Te Ka's heart, Moana's island is beautified once again, a great exchange for this new partnership. However, this singular act is actually moot for Moana and her people, who leave their land as soon as it returns to splendor. Indeed, the real gift comes from Maui, who teaches Moana to be a seafarer, not just a sailor. Her new skills are best seen in the films denouement as she takes the islanders out on their old boats, bringing them from isolation to the world at large. 


This triumphant ending is fulfillment of destiny for Moana, and a joyous finale for the audience, but, in our time, perhaps a well placed nod to the benefits of global partnerships over isolationist fear-mongering. 


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