Moana: Under the Deep Blue Waters.

Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, 2016.


It is not every day that we get to see a film like Moana, which is not just a triumph of the art of filmmaking but also a celebration of the journey that we call life-of man’s eternal quest for meaning in life. Disney uses the old crucible, the same ingredients- but in a varied proportion – and adds a few new spices, to cook up a startlingly fresh recipe that has become a yardstick by which the quality of its future productions will be judged. Based on a Polynesian myth, the story of Moana travels space and time to become a universal tale of adventure and self-discovery which would definitely be enjoyed by generations to come. The film is a product of a great team’s hard work and dedication which gets reflected throughout the film ranging from the beautiful Polynesian islands, to the detailed development of the characters and obviously the soulful numbers which linger in one’s mind long after the film has ended.

The character of Moana (played by Auli’ i Cravalho) is a very welcome addition to the legacy of Disney. In an important inversion of convention, Moana is notone of the anorexic princesses who have stick figures for bodies; hers is a rather rotund figure. She is very brown, and not at all one of the damsels in distress unlike her predecessors. She knows it from the very outset that she will have to shoulder the responsibilities of her island Motunui after her father, who is the Chief of that island. She leads an idyllic life in her island surrounded by her people and knows that no one goes beyond the reef, yet at times, her heart sings a different song. Whenever the sea calls her she cannot control herself and she desperately wants to explore beyond the reef and discover “how far it [the ocean] goes” (‘How Far It Goes’).

The film opens with the mythological tale of Maui’s act of transgression which resulted in the birth of a “terrible darkness”, narrated by Moana’s Grandma Tala (Rachel House). Maui (Dwayne Johnson) had stolen the heart of TeFiti, the Mother Goddess, a thousand years ago in an attempt to please the Immortals who would then be able to procreate life with the help of the heart. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as planned by Maui and he had to pay for his act by losing his magical fishhook and had to lead his life as an exile stranded in an island until the “chosen one” came and grabbed him by the ears, made him board her canoe, cross the great ocean in order to return the heart of TeFiti. The name ‘Moana’ roughly translates to ‘deep waters’ or ‘ocean’ therefore it’s fair enough that the ocean will be inextricably related to her. Thus, she was the ‘chosen one’ who would have to complete this daunting task. Everything in her island was going just fine until one day the predictions of her Grandma came true- a dark disease had afflicted their coconut trees and all their fish were chased away by some uncertain reason. When she proposed to go beyond the reef in search of some catch, she was forcefully silenced by her father. But, no one could silence her inner voice and she set sail and moved beyond the reef accompanied by Pua. But her initial attempt at exploring was thwarted and she almost accidentally survived. It is at this critical juncture that her Grandma tells her the tale which the authority had tried to erase from the collective memory of their people as it posed a deep threat to their safety. This tale revealed that their ancestors were voyagers but after the rise of the darkness, many ships were lost and many men died which made these adventurers permanently settle down. Her Grandma then returns the heart of TeFiti which the sea had given Moana years ago. Time and again Moana is confronted with choices and every time she chooses the road less travelled by and that makes all the difference. There seems to be a deep sense of understandingwhich the women characters share in this tale. When everybody is refusing to believe Moana, her Mother and her Grandma are the only people who reassure her and provide her with the necessary strength to carry on with her quest. This is in stark contrast to the earlier fairy tales where women were portrayed in two colours-either black or white- she was either the paragon of angelic beauty and virtue like Cinderella or Snow White, or the evil stepmother figure.

Thus, Moana sets out on her own to fulfill the task assigned to her and answer the call of the sea. Thestorytellers toy with the expectations of the audience as Heihei-the curious rooster (and not Pua) gets to accompany Moana in heradventure. Heihei is a very interesting figure who likes to walk with his eyes covered in a coconut husk and is disillusioned every time Moana removes the coconut husk from over his head. Heihei fails to come to terms with reality and appears to inhabit a different world altogether. It makes no difference to Heihei if he is pecking on a piece of wood, stone or real food but he goes on pecking enthusiastically. His act of pecking is perhaps an act of desperation which helps him attach some meaning to his otherwise uneventful existence. Heihei is also probably a dehumanized version of every unthinking  individual who accepts whatever he is given unquestionably and overlooks the tyranny of the world by covering his eyes with a coconut husk not realizing what he is capable of and never trying to realize his true potential. When one of the villagers proposes to roast Heihei as such a stupid chicken is of no use to anybody, Moana retorts saying:

“Sometimes our strengths lie beneath the surface… but I’m sure there’s more to Heihei than meets the eyes.”

In our quest for perfection we often bury parts of ourselves not realizing that they are equally important to our being. In this context, it is interesting to note that the person playing the voice of the villager who had proposed to roast Heihei is the same person who has given his voice to the rooster. Therefore, there is definitely more to Heihei than meets the eyes. Heihei also has a critical role to play in the final sequence when he saves the heart of TeFiti instead of gobbling it up proving that he is not stupid after all and surprises everybody just like Moana had.

The ocean is also a very important character in the story. It is the source of chaos as well as order. If there is darkness in its shadowy depths then it also provides the characters with the necessary strength to fight and end the darkness. The ocean might be a friend of Moana but it does not help her until she tries to help herself or asks for help.

                          “The sea doesn’t help you, you help yourself”,

said Maui. Maui might be a demigod but it was his original sin and he had to pay the price for disrupting the balance of nature by stealing the heart. The heart might be a stone which maintains the balance of nature but on a closer look it might also stand for that primitive force which keeps each one of us from falling into pieces, the force which helps us fight our inner demons and emerge victorious in that strife.

In his eighth letter “To a Young Poet”, the great poet Rilke says,

“We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world…. If it has terrors, they are our terrors,… if it has dangers, we must try to love them…. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Moana teaches us that we are a conglomeration of TeFiti and TeKa and only when we acknowledge the chaos inside us will we be able to muster the courage to invoke order out of it. Moana’s quest is therefore every man’s quest for meaning in life.

                                                                                                                 -Aishwarya Das Gupta

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