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Moana: The hidden meaning behind its characters

More than just a vivid spectacle of Polynesian culture with respectful accuracy, Moana also nurtures another layer of meaning that would aggrandize its welcoming appeal in the eyes of audiences.

[This article contains spoilers for Moana.]


Released back in November, Moana received less attention than it deserved due to its assumably generic tone as a musical animation along the line of Disney princess movies. That is not to mention the echoing buzz by a critically lauded, socially conscious Zootopia from earlier last year. On top of that, there were several controversies surrounding the inappropriate portrayal of Polynesian body type seen in Maui.

Nonetheless, most of Moana’s viewers greeted the movie with warm reception (and Maui looked both funny and pragmatically strong). Moana presents a well-realized female character full of ambition for leadership, and there is no romantic affair (at least within the ambitious scope of the movie). Accompanied by a lively soundtrack and captivating characters, it illustrates a vivid spectacle of Polynesian culture with respectful accuracy. Moreover, Moana also nurtures another layer of meaning that would aggrandize its welcoming appeal in the eyes of audiences. If Moana’s plot seemed to fall safely into old Disney tropes, they also would be what elevated it to a more dignified status.

Moana and Gramma Tala


From the positive point of view that is woven throughout the movie, Maui is the very epitome of formidable figures throughout history and their influences in life. He has a tragic, unstable childhood and means well for humanity – the usual background for heroes, upon which their re-inventions are built. Filled with ambition and desire to fit in, these heroes put themselves out there, proving their worthiness, and Maui is no exception to this. His legendary labors of forming new territories were spread among clans like epic tales of creation. As a result, he is worshiped by the Polynesian islanders.

Talking to Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) in a condescending tone (which is perfectly delivered by The Rock), Maui displays a vainglorious attitude for his godly status. Yet, scratch the surface with harsh challenges and his shiny facade will eventually fall off. Deep down inside, the demi-god is just a pseudo-god, who bleeds red like everyone else. Maui’s magical hook is actually a grace handed over by the real divinity; it represents powerful godsends (in the form of serendipities), blessed from up high, to enforce one’s own innate intellect and strength.

Maui and his tattoos

Great people in history have always possessed certain intrinsic qualities: their wisdom, patience, and durability (Maui HAD it all); and only by elevating these traits (with the hook) can they become truly influential. Still, there always exists a problem: these fantastic folks are prone to making mistakes. At some point, they would rashly use these instruments to achieve well-deserved recognition through physical establishment or renovation, and dismal consequences follow. The mortal Maui lost his hook and became insecure. He was full of self-doubt, and the reality behind “false” idols left the worshiped and their followers in depression.

Inevitably, Te Fiti – Mother Nature – becomes a victim of exploitation: Her definitive, pristine beauty was stripped away. In an instinctively angry and frustrating response, She became the fire demon Te Ka – a threat to all human life. But make no mistake, destructive flames spread by Te Ka also holds in themselves the power to restore life if given proper conditions. We all know how much lava is beneficial to agricultural activity; side note: it is also the eruption of magma from submarine volcanoes that has been forming islands from ancient times. The only question that remains is: what are those proper conditions?

Moana and her parents


After Maui’s failure, humankind is coerced to act in response to the trail of destruction he irresponsibly left behind. It threatens Polynesian settlements, specifically the island of Motunui, and that is when our girl Moana, as a representative of the strong hope from South Pacific, steps in.

Rising above the prohibition to not cross the reef, Moana sets sail towards the direction of Maui with a literal helping hand from the ocean – or The Element of Water itself. Since the beginning of time, water has been serving as an intermediate for a vast number of natural activities. Drinking water is the salient solvent for metabolism, and the oceans are literally a filler of the space between continents and islands. As a conveyor of lifeforce and mortal dynamic, this essential power continues to connect what need to be combined.

Eventually, Maui comes back in his attempt for redemption, which is undoubtedly cliché, but this addition rounds up the cooperation of humans and nature in their struggle to heal environmental beauties. Te Fiti is resurrected in the verdant texture of Moana’s appearance, hence the hope for a bright, harmonic future shaped by our own doings.

The resurrection of Te Fiti


Amongst recent films, Moana has the most low-key, profound metaphor about human, nature, and human nature, even when the movie disguises in form of a family-friendly CG masterwork. That Optimus-cubes-Megatron scene in the final act had me teary-eyed with its cumulative prowess that feels so earned by everything comes before it. Be sure to check out Moana again after your first viewing.