This essay contains spoilers throughout. Do not read until you’ve seen the film.
“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” arrogant Demigod Maui tells teenage adventurer Moana in Disney’s latest animated masterpiece. “You’re a Princess!” It’s a neat little line that parodies Disney Princess heritage without mocking it too derisively, but there’s much more than mere humour going on with this line. While Moana may protest at Maui’s definition, she is, by sheer force of the Disney marketing machine at least, a Princess, and as such you’ll likely hear critics rhapsodise over how different she is from her predecessors when they come to write their reviews of this film. There’s certainly truth in that, but though the external shell may be that of a rough and ready warrior, Moana is, heart and soul, a very traditional Disney Princess. And as I’ll explore in this essay, that’s a very good thing.
An Innocent Warrior
Let’s deal with that shell first of all, because at its core, Moana is about the multi-faceted nature of identity: the diversity of the human race as a whole, the changing roles we, as individuals, play in our cultures, and the parts we play in order to do that. Moana is, absolutely, a character of agency and physical strength. She defeats creepy coconut guys (the adorably nasty mini-pirates, the Kakamora), outwits a giant crab (the superficial and delightfully self-indulgent Tamatao), and escapes a humongous lava monster (the beautifully animated Te Ka). She doesn’t need a prince to come and save her and is never shy about attempting a physically intimidating task, be that scaling a steep cliff or swinging onto the Kakamora ship to rescue her idiotic chicken friend Hei Hei. Moana is Disney-Princess-as-action hero, and it’s wonderful that a generation of young women have another ass-kicking Mulan-style heroine to look up to.
But just as there was more to Mulan than dressing as a guy and joining the army, so too is there more to Moana. The title of this section refers the second song we hear in the film. ‘An Innocent Warrior’ is played during a sequence where toddler Moana ventures to the beach and encounters a baby turtle that’s trying to make its way across the sand, beyond the birds hoping to gobble it up, and towards the safety of the sea. Compassionate enough to understand the animal’s struggles, Moana leaves the ocean that had piqued her interest enough to bring her down to the beach in the first place and rips a large leaf off the branch of a tree. Using it to shield the turtle from the birds, she ushers her new friend down to the water and bids it farewell as it swims off. An innocent warrior from the very start, Moana here displays the courage and strength of a fighter and the faith, pure compassion, and maybe even naivety of an innocent. In other words, she’s defined as much by her emotional strength as her physical strength.
Moana‘s adventurous story allows directors Ron Clements and John Musker to draw this out in more detail. Moana is a fighter, and a very determined and capable one at that, but she’s not able to do everything. She fails in her initial attempts to go beyond the reef, injuring herself in the process; she makes a potentially fatal mistake when closing on her goal, much to the chargin of Maui; and she can’t even muster the necessary strength to remove a Kakamora arrow from her boat’s mast. Maui, meanwhile, plucks it out like an apple from a tree. (1) Perhaps her most significant failure is in her first meeting with Maui, when she allows the visual and lyrical fun of ‘You’re Welcome’ to blind her to the demigod’s true purpose: stealing her boat so he can escape the island he’s marooned on. Only some quick thinking saves her from being marooned herself.
Time and again, the film shows our hero as a work in progress, a young woman as capable of naivety and impetuousness as great feats of heroics. This is key to the film’s story and the character’s development. Moana’s strength isn’t innate; she has to develop it and battling a harsh and unforgiving ocean (and the even more harsh and unforgiving beasties within it) never comes easily. Mistakes are made and, as I’ll return to later, the film explicitly positions this as a positive in ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)’, a rousing duet between Moana and her grandmother Gramma Tala in which the virtues of emotional intelligence and learning from weakness are extolled. (2) Indeed, her ability to learn is shown to be one of Moana’s most significant skills, whether it’s in the ingenuity of her rescue of the turtle, her escape from the cave that Maui traps her in, or the way she solves the problems laid out by her people when she’s training under her father to become Chief. She watches, she analyses, she learns, and she masters the skills needs, ultimately mastering her most prized skill: Wayfinding.
Who needs a new song?
While the Wayfinding and warrior nature of Moana is unique to the film, the concept of failing, learning, trying again, and ultimately succeeding runs through all Disney Princess films, even as far back as Cinderella. The motif kicked into a new gear with the Renaissance, where characters were built on their sense of failure – failure to fit in, failure to be understood, failure to meet society’s required standards. This failure is why the ‘I Want Song’ has become such a staple of the Princess film’s make up. These are not just pretty little ditties about wish fulfilment and magic; they’re insights into our heroes’ hopes, desires, and needs, they’re how they process their failures and set their sights on their successes. Ariel feels she can’t fit in in Atlantica, but knows she could in the human world; Belle feels she’ll never be understood or satisfied in her quiet provincial town, so seeks adventure; Rapunzel feels she’ll let down Mother Gothel if she ventures outside, but knows she must anyway. Princesses start off as failures and seek the courage to become successes. While we shouldn’t diminish the physical strength Princesses can show, nor should we suggest it’s the only strength they can show.
In Moana, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda exacerbates our hero’s sense of failure by basing a song around the world she wants to escape. ‘Where You Are’ owes a debt of gratitude to The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Under the Sea’ in the sense that it focuses on a character (Sebastian the Crab in Mermaid, Moana’s father, Chief Tui, here) strong arming – with the best of intentions – our hero into staying put. He tells Moana of her duty to the island, reminding her that her place in the natural order of things is on Motunui and nowhere else. “The island gives us what we need,” Moana is told, before recognising with a certain sadness that this means “no-one leaves.” She matures during the course of the song, and by the end of it (unlike ‘Under the Sea’) it’s had its desired effect. “So here I’ll stay,” present day Moana sings. “My home, my people/Beside me/And when I think of tomorrow…” “There we are…” say the villagers, completing her sentence.
And indeed there they are. Moana settles, becoming the chief-in-training her father expects her to be and that her people need her to be. She’s aware of the responsibility she holds, and willing to accept it, but the desire to change her life remains: she can’t quite shake off the voice within her that tells her she needs to move on. It’s the emotional intelligence and inner strength that all the Princesses have. She knows there’s something wrong and she needs to do something about it, and her challenge through the film is to achieve that something.
This struggle is brilliantly brought to life through Miranda’s association of Moana with the ocean and the natural world. In the I Want Song ‘How Far I’ll Go’, she sings of being drawn to the “line where the sky meets the sea” and likens her motivation for exploring to “the wind in my sail on the sea”. By having her describe herself like this, Miranda allows Moana to appreciate her core difference to her family and community. Both she and her people value the land, but while they’re happy to stay where they are and live off the land, Moana knows that life isn’t just about surviving and being given “all we need”, but about flourishing, giving back to the natural world, being a part of it, and forging togetherness through the connections the natural world affords.
It’s a concept learned by Clements and Musker on their research trips to the Oceania region. Recounting their experiences in the book ‘The Art of Moana’, the directors describe meetings with island natives where they were told how the ocean isn’t viewed as a great divider of the region’s islands, but as a connector, something that brings all the small and disparate locations together. So Moana’s strength, and her solution to her failure to feel at peace with her community, is to connect not just with her own emotions, but those of all of Oceania, and forge a new identity for her people, one built on a changing relationship with the world. This idea of shifting identities is a theme Disney has returned to time and time again of late and therefore one that merits further investigation.
Just an ordinary demi-guy!
From The Princess and the Frog onwards, Disney has played with concepts of identity: the roles we play to get along in life, the way elements of our being dictate who we are, and the way our entire sense of self can be deconstructed or transformed. We see this most explicitly in the villains the Modern Era of Disney has produced. From Tangled through to Zootopia, Disney has portrayed evil as a slippery force willing to shift its identity in order to get what it wants or needs. Sometimes this villainy is immediately apparent to everyone but the hero (Tangled‘s Mother Gothel), but mostly it’s played as a twist: Hans turns out to be anything but a handsome prince; kindly mentor Callaghan turns out to be the supervillain Yokai; King Candy reveals himself to be game-hopping Turbo; and shy and retiring Bellwether emerges as the mastermind behind the plan to pit herbivores against carnivores.
Such schemes stand in stark contrast to the heroes, who are no less split in their personalities, but are largely unaware of that fact, or at least unable to do anything about it. Rapunzel, for example, doesn’t know she’s a Princess just that she feels curiously connected to the floating lights in the sky. Ralph is a bad guy who longs to be a good guy so he can live a better life, while Vanellope, like Rapunzel, has been denied an identity that’s rightfully her’s and instead is convinced that she’s a glitch. Judy Hopps is an ambitious young policebunny thwarted by her unsuitably cute identity and Nick Wilde is a good guy who feels he needs to play the part of the bad guy because that’s what everyone expects. And, of course, Elsa is fighting against herself in order to save Anna, while Anna herself plays the part of a swooning Princess because she thinks it’ll get her the love she craves.
Big Hero 6, one of the more overlooked modern Disney films, is arguably the studio’s most fascinating deconstruction of identity, if for no other reason than the long history of identity crises in the superhero genre. In the film, Hiro creates superhero alter egos for he and his friends not to serve a higher good, but to serve his own desire to understand his brother’s death and potentially exact revenge upon whoever was responsible for it. In other words, he’s dangerously close to using identity in the same way modern Disney villains do, and in one of the film’s key sequences, he does just that, changing Baymax’s programming to turn him into a killing machine with his sights set firmly on the newly-exposed Callaghan. The rest of the group tear Hiro and Baymax away just in time, but it’s not until the film’s conclusion that Hiro’s identity crisis fully resolves itself, and the Big Hero 6 become a force for good and not just for their leader’s personal vendettas.
Moana never ventures into places so dark, but the film surpasses even Big Hero 6‘s exploration of identity because almost every character in the film is suffering through some form of identity crisis. Alongside our heroine, the film is comprised of four main characters, though intriguingly none can claim to be a core villain. Instead, we have three threats and an ambiguous anti-hero (Maui, who with his ability to shapeshift is a literal identity crisis as well as an emotional one). The three threats are Te Ka (the closest we get to an overall villain, who I’ll touch on in greater detail a little later), the Kakamora and Tamatoa. Though the latter two aren’t on screen for a particularly long time, they shift identities to serve their own ends, just like any other Disney villain. The Kakamora are described as “cute” by Moana when she first sees them, and indeed they are; until they smear on war paint, brandish weaponry, and wage war on Moana and Maui. Never judge a book by its cover, or a monster by its adorable coconut exterior.
Later we encounter Tamatoa, a gigantic crab with a love for everything gold, glittery, and Bowie-esque. It’s Tamatoa who has the honour of contributing to the long line of excellent Disney villain songs with his number ‘Shiny’, and it’s through this that Miranda zeroes in on identity again. Tamatoa begins by lamenting how he “hasn’t always been this glam,” telling us he was “a drab little crab once”. He brags to Moana – disguised as a crustacean in an attempt to sneak up on her foe – of his joy at being so superficial and delights in telling her how Gramma Tala’s advice that she listen to what’s inside is wrong. It’s all about surface with this guy; he’d rather dazzle on the outside because that’s what drives fish to his lair and gives him the food to live a simple, hassle-free life. (3)
As the song progresses, Tamatoa discovers Maui and his plan to retrieve his lost fish hook, which has now found a home on the crab’s shell. Suddenly, the song shifts focus. No longer just a boast of Tamatoa’s external prowess, ‘Shiny’ becomes an attack on Maui as we learn more about the demigod and his tragic history. As Maui explains in greater detail later in the film, he’s been abandoned by his creators and forced to go through life alone. He creates the sky, sea, and land that he boasted about so much in ‘You’re Welcome’ not simply to prove how brilliant he is, but as a gift to humans who, as Tamatoa points out with glee, have since abandoned him too. He sings:
Send your armies but they’ll never be enough
My shell’s too tough, Maui man
You could try, try, try
But you can’t expect a demigod
To beat a decapod, give it up,
You will die, die, die
Now it’s time for me to take apart
Your aching heart
Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of
These humans who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough
It’s a tremendous feat of songwriting from Miranda and it shines a new light on ‘You’re Welcome’, which like ‘Let It Go’ before it (4), becomes an act of self-deception. Maui’s boasts are a shell, a false identity built to distract people from his true self. (5) He and Tamatoa are essentially the same: monoliths who have shifted from one static identity to the other and got stuck, both emotionally and literally. Before meeting Moana, Maui was no less able to move from his position than Tamatoa is, and while his fish hook may grant him magical powers to shift forms, it’s as much a gift as a curse (6). He’s come to rely on its power as much as Tamatoa has come to rely on his shiny shell, and when the fish hook is lost or broken, Maui loses his sense of identity.
It’s fitting that when we last see these characters (Maui in the film’s final scene, Tamatoa in an amusing post-credit sting) the two are in very different positions. His power (and more importantly, connection to his inner self) restored, Maui is flying high, able once again to shapeshift into an eagle and come and go as he pleases. Tamatoa, meanwhile, is stuck on his back at the bottom of the ocean, his shininess dulled, his chances of getting back on his feet almost non-existent. While Maui has learned from Moana and come to understand the importance of listening to one’s heart and exploring the world around you, Tamatoa hasn’t had the benefit of her emotional intelligence. Only those who listen to Moana’s inner strength can succeed, and that idea sets up the remarkable final act in which our heroine finally confronts Te Ka the lava monster, and achieves her I Want Song goal.
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Before battle commences, we get something I can’t ever recall seeing in a Disney Princess film before: a second, entirely unique reprise of the I Want Song: an ‘I Nearly Have’ Song, if you will. Having fallen out with Maui, Moana is at her lowest ebb and ready to give up when Gramma Tala returns in spirit form to duet with her grand-daughter on ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors’). It acts as a reassertion of Moana’s determination, but also a reminder of the multitudinous aspects of her identity: her family, her island, the ocean, and the natural world as a whole. Tala begins by telling Moana about failure and how no successes can be achieved without it. “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are,” she tells her grandaughter, asserting that “the things you have learned will guide you.” Again, like all Princesses, Moana is the sum of her failures and the lessons she’s learned from them.
They’re sentiments Moana heeds. She takes over the song in its second half and begins by reaffirming the split elements of her identity, saying she’s “the girl who loves my island… the girl who loves the sea”. Again, she’s speaking of her own wants versus the wants of her father, something she touches on as the song progresses, adding that she remains “the daughter of the village chief” but also insisting that “we are descended from voyagers”. Echoing Tala’s thoughts, she says that she’s “everything I’ve learned and more”, and what she’s learned is that her and her father’s wants are one and the same: a love of her island is a love of the sea, being the village chief’s daughter requires her to be a voyager. While other Princesses have shunned their societies to fulfil their needs, Moana’s simply changed the rules, flowed like the sea and created a new identity (and new I Want Song) based on change and the fluxing nature of identity, heritage, and family. Bringing the song to an end, she sings:
“The call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!”
This themes turn into literal truth in the film’s finale as Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti not by destroying Te Ka in the action packed set piece we’ve been set up to expect, but by having maturity, morality, and emotional intelligence enough to understand that Te Ka is Te Fiti. The island lives and after Maui took its heart from her, she turned into a monster whose warped identity comes to infect the entire world. (7)
Again, it’s Miranda’s songwriting that illuminates the moment by having Moana sing another new song (‘Know Who You Are’) that’s based on one we’ve previously heard (‘An Innocent Warrior’). As she parts the sea and confronts Te Ka, she tells the monster that though “they have stolen the heart from inside you” this absence “does not define you/This is not who you are/You know who you are.” Truly Moana has become the innocent warrior, a young woman possessing a warrior’s courage and an innocent’s clarity, intelligence, and faith in goodness. She returns the heart, and Te Ka, in one of the most remarkable moments of animation in this most beautiful of films, becomes Te Fiti once more, a lush green island of life and warmth. The threat over, Moana and Maui stand on Te Fiti’s hills and look out across the ocean to a world given a second chance.
Moana’s saved the day, and saved the world by connecting herself to it, opening herself to the opportunity of it changing her, and finding a way to change it, rather than simply feeding off what it provides. Identities change, they ebb and slow like oceans. Only by understanding that can you understand who you are.
We know who we are
To round up this piece, I want to return to Princesses as a whole because while Moana has a unique identity of her own, Maui is right with that jokey line about dresses and sidekicks: she is, at her heart, a Princess.
We must always hold Disney to account on their presentation of these characters, both on screen and in merchandising, but we must also commend them when they get it as right as they have with Moana and other recent Princess films. We must also acknowledge that ‘Princess’ is not a dirty word. Moana is a compassionate, intelligent, sensitive, courageous young woman, as the other Princesses are, as many of the films’ audience is. To dismiss Princesses is to dismiss scores of smart, wonderful young women who find something valuable in these films.
Strength isn’t just about physicality. As we’re seeing in society every day, strength is about possessing the emotional intelligence to understand who you are, the flexibility to change with it, and the courage to express it, whether that identity be a result of your culture, race, sexuality, or gender. Moana is a perfect film for our times because that’s what it expresses. That’s what Frozen expressed. And Tangled. And Mulan. And The Little Mermaid… Name a Princess film, and you’ll find that concept shouted out loud and clear. We just seem to struggle to see past the dresses and glitter and magical fantasy of it all.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and when thinking about Disney Princesses, I find The Switch Sisters’ comments about finding feminist messages in these films particularly compelling.
Although we women-types have a long way to go in this and all other forms of media (as well as in real life), it’s important to seek out positive feminist messages in the things that girls actually like. Not that all girls like princesses. But when we do, maybe take us seriously. Why do we like them? What do we like about them? Why does dressing up as princesses give girls so much empowerment? Why do girls get so much joy from singing I Want Songs?
In lieu of the magical qualities the earth and sea have in Moana, the emphasis is on us to be each other’s “wind in the sail on the sea” and drive each other to the line on the horizon that Moana pines for. It’s a journey that begins, as Moana’s does, with listening to the call: the call of the world, the call inside ourselves, and more than anything else, the call inside others.
- It’ll be interesting to see how Moana is viewed through a feminist lens. When Anna struggled to get to climb a mountain in Frozen, the film attracted criticism for mocking her strength and making her look stupid. Moana offers its hero many more opportunities to display her physical strength and adventuring aptitude, and grants her the opportunity to succeed, but it’s not afraid to show her struggling like Anna and play such moments for laughs. Is Moana an improvement on Frozen in this regard?
- Tala sings: “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/
But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are/The people you love will change you/The things you have learned will guide you”
- While the film stops short of associating Tamatoa with Moana’s island, there’s not a huge difference between the isolationist policies of Montenui and Tamatoa. Both use what they’ve been provided with to stay put; living off the land, rather than giving back to it.
- Check out three’s fantastic post about ‘Let It Go’ as a song of empowerment for a good rebuttal of my own piece.
- Dwayne Johnson continues to be one of the most interesting, and important, male screen presences in modern Hollywood. He has an exceptional eye for picking his roles, understanding his celebrity persona and often subverting it. His last film, Central Intelligence, found him playing a rogue CIA agent with a love for effeminate pop songs and dancing. Maui’s struggles here speak to the concept of masculinity in crisis, struggling with emotional problems but being unable to speak about them. Having been open about his own difficulties with depression, you suspect Johnson related to Maui’s journey through Moana, and I hope it connects with young men in the audience the way Elsa’s difficulties connected with young women.
- For more on modern Disney’s depiction of magic, check out my essay ‘No Magic’.
- There’s a nice evolution from Frozen here. If Elsa had a frozen heart that threw Arendelle into an eternal winter, Te Fiti has an absent heart that throws the world into a potentially eternal darkness.