When I first saw Moana, I ranked it as typical Disney. It was better in some ways; Moana’s primary relationship is with family, not a boyfriend, which is a refreshing change, and she is athletic and does stuff. But once I saw the same old “Junior knows best” and “Follow your heart” tropes at play, I honestly dismissed it as nothing special and even dozed off for some of the final act.
Yet some friends my age, whom I love and respect, were deeply moved by the film. This piqued my curiosity. And as I listen to the soundtrack ad infinitum with my girls, I get chills every time Moana sings “I am Moaaanaaaaaa!” At one point I found myself crying while washing dishes. Okayyy…. interest piqued further.
So I was willing to accept that there was more to this film than the Disney formula I had assumed, something deeper it was tapping into. Though I don’t own the film, I do own the soundtrack. And boy do I. I heard that thing umpteen-million times (and I am still not tired of it, if you’re wondering).
So by careful (and repetitious) listening, and picking up the ol’ literary analysis toolbox, I was determined to get to the bottom of it. My results? Well, they have changed me from dismissive to wanting to buy the film. They are also extensive. In fact, this will be a two-parter. (Hey, it’s called Word-HOARD for a reason.)
CLUE 1: FOILS
A writing tip I’ve picked up is that whenever you have a protagonist with an internal struggle, it’s good to have a foil or two to highlight possible consequences for the protagonist’s success or failure. Brandon Sanderson has said that he likes to have one foil show the consequences of giving in to the protagonist’s internal problem, and possibly one who shows the gains of handling the problem rightly.
In Sanderson’s own Mistborn, Vinn is torn between the certainty she can’t trust anyone and the desire for trust, represented by Reen and Kelsier respectively. In Hamlet, the play I always use to teach foils, Laertes is the “bad” foil who handles decision-making even worse than Hamlet; Fortinbras, Jr. is the “good” foil who shows us what Hamlet should do but alas, does not.
But let’s stop talking about Hamlet, because that could easily usurp this entire post. In Moana, the only two characters developed enough to be foils are Maui and Tala (Moana’s grandmother).
Maui is troubled and somewhat troublesome, so let’s assume he’s the “badly handled internal struggle” foil. You could say his problem is arrogance or selfishness, but the evil crab Tamatoa is the one who identifies the real problem, which the other faults only cover for. Exposing Maui’s hidden back tattoo as the lights dramatically lower, Tamatoa taunts, “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.”
Maui wants the gods’ approval, but doesn’t have it. So he “chases” the love of humans who make him feel wanted: chases their approval.
Is Moana’s internal struggle, based on this clue from her foil, about approval?
Let’s check our other foil. Does Tala, whom we may assume by default to be the “good” one, also have to do with approval? WHY YES SHE DOES. She doesn’t care about it: “The village may think I’m crazy / Or say that I drift too far, / But once you know what you like, well, / There you are.” She constantly encourages Moana to follow her heart.
We have our foils, and in finding them, we have found our theme: approval.
Moana herself is torn between the two foils’ approaches. She does want approval, to fulfill her expected role well and earn her island’s gratitude, but she also wants to forget what everyone else thinks and pursue her passion: “I wish / I could be the perfect daughter, / But I come back to the water, / No matter how hard I try.”
The foils have blazed two different trails for her. Which she will follow is the question she navigates the whole movie.
CLUE 2: VILLAIN
The villain can also develop the theme, usually by choosing a different extreme than the protagonist does. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, Gaston is beautiful (?) on the outside but a monster on the inside, opposite of what Belle and the Beast must discover: “that true beauty lies within.”
Who is the villain of Moana? Considering the resolution to the plot’s main problem, I’d say it’s not Te Ka. While Te Ka creates the problem that sends Moana out, it’s more a force of nature than an antagonist “out to get” Moana like Ursula is after Ariel.
Well, let’s follow the Disney clues, then. Who sings the villain song? There’s only one candidate, and that’s Tamatoa again.
Hmm, he’s coming up a lot. Now, to me, Tamatoa himself always seemed like a random add-in, an excuse to involve Jemaine Clement (which is arguably worthwhile in and of itself). He had little to do with the plot outside his cave. But when you think about him thematically, he becomes integral. This is a good sign that we’re on the right track.
What does Tamatoa have to do with approval? Tamatoa himself doesn’t seek anyone’s approval. He approves of himself (“I’m beautiful, baby”) and that is all he cares about.
But he does at one point compare himself to Maui, the “bad” foil: “Yet I have to give you [Maui] credit for my start / And your tattoos on the outside, / For just like you, I made myself a work of art.”
“On the outside” is italicized for a reason. To the conflicting ideas about approval (should we seek it or not?), Tamatoa’s song adds a related dichotomy: outer versus inner life. Approval is generally associated with the outer life; the other option, following your heart, is associated with the inner.
Tamatoa rejects the inner life in order to be “glam” “on the outside.” He mocks Good Foil Tala’s advice: “Did your granny tell you, ‘Listen to your heart; / Be who you are on the inside?’ . . . Your granny lied.”
Our foil Maui combines our two binaries (approval vs. your own way, outer vs. inner) in his tattoos. The tats symbolize Maui’s quest for approval—how it started and all he has done to get approval. They are also “on the outside,” giving us the inner/outer binary.
Applied to Moana herself, what does this outer vs. inner dichotomy look like? It is tied strongly to the theme of approval. Moana feels the outside pull of people’s expectations, the pressure of a role to fill. She also feels the pull of the ocean she loves. But interestingly, she believes this call is coming from outside her: “See the line where the sky meets the sea? / It calls me.”
Yet Tala tells Moana, “You may hear a voice inside. . . . Moana, that voice inside is / Who you are.”
Moana has a lot of ideas to juggle and to choose between: approval or passion? Outer or inner life? Next week, I’ll examine the film’s resolution to see where the story lands, which side it chooses. If you can’t stand to miss it, please give me a follow!