Disney finds a hero and a world worth celebrating in 'Moana'

02 Dec 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

8 mins

Disney's latest feature, Moana, is a coming-of-age tale featuring a young girl whose destiny is to become the chief of her Polynesian island. However, the island is suffering under an ancient curse, and although she wants to find help, Moana is forbidden to go beyond the reef that separates the island from the wilder seas beyond.

Moana was a film three years in the making, with much of that time spent doing extensive research in Polynesia; a group of over a thousand islands situated in the South Pacific. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements (who also made Disney classics The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) became immersed in the culture after an invitation from island elder Papa M, who challenged them to get beneath the surface, asking: "For years we've been swallowed by your culture; for once, would you be swallowed by ours?

Disney has been to Polynesia before; 2002's Lilo and Stitch was set in Hawaii and the Hawaiian actors were encouraged to adapt their lines to make them sound more authentic. For Moana, the filmmakers went an extra step and formed the 'Oceanic Story Trust', a group of choreographers, weavers, tattoo artists, archaeologists, anthropologists and tribal elders, who were all invited to share their expertise to shape Moana's story. One of their challenges was to agree on what the character of demigod Maui should be like. He is represented in many different ways across Polynesian folklore, with some islands revering his heroic qualities, and others painting him more as a wily trickster. The final version seen in the film combines these two visions, with Maui's more heroic side cleverly brought to life with a hand-animated tattoo version of himself that lives above his heart.  

Respect for the elders is a part of Polynesian culture that the filmmakers were keen to show, and Moana's beloved Gramma Tala is mother of the chief and guardian of their island's history. She encourages Moana to pursue her destiny in ways that Moana's protective parents are afraid to. Seeing that she has a special connection with the ocean, Gramma realises that it is her duty to pass on some very important knowledge to Moana, even if it goes against her parents wishes. 2002's New Zealand-set Whale Rider also shows the strong bond between elders and the younger generation, and also features a headstrong girl who is forced to challenge the authority of the grandfather she adores. Long Way North features another young girl inspired by her grandfather, who is an explorer lost at sea. Like Moana, Pai must bid farewell to the world she knows, leaving high-society life behind to brave a perilous Arctic voyage to find him.

There are around 30 different Polynesian languages, and in many of them, 'Moana' means 'ocean'. It's no surprise, then, that Moana has a deep connection with the big blue. The ocean even appears in the film as an important interactive character; calling to Moana as a child, and giving her further signs as she grows up. However, it is not a one-sided representation - the ocean's dangerous and destructive potential is also shown. Water is infamously difficult to animate, because it is clear, reflective, and has a wide range of movement. To give it life, three different computer generated (CG) animation programs were created to animate views of the ocean at a distance, in mid-shot, and at close-up. Films such as Finding Nemo paved the way for creating the look of realistically moving water with CG technology, while Kubo and the Two Strings also used innovative techniques to animate water - but with the added challenge of also making it look like stop-motion animation!

Water has a symbolic importance within Polynesian culture, where it is seen as something that connects - rather than separates - the various islands that form Oceania. Polynesian people had a long history of navigating the ocean, which mysteriously came to a sudden stop about a thousand years ago. This abrupt halt intrigued the filmmakers, and they used this idea as a starting point for Moana's story, as she reconnects to this wayfaring legacy to begin her own voyage of discovery. Many of the threats encountered on her journey call to mind the difficulties faced by Jason and his crew in Jason and the Argonauts, a live-action version of a Greek myth, with various monsters incredibly brought to life by legendary animator Ray Harryhausen. Telling stories of epic quests - especially those featuring young heroes with destinies to fulfil like Jason, Kubo, Pai, and Moana - forms an inspiring part of big-screen heritage, and the cinema remains the place to go to experience these heroic deeds brought to life. 

Of course, Moana wouldn't be a Disney adventure if it didn't have a moving soundtrack full of catchy songs. Lin-Manuel Miranda - composer and director of the hit musical Hamilton - co-wrote much of the music, along with composer Mark Mancina and Samoan artist Opetaia Foai. One of the stand-out tracks ('Shiny', sung by a delightfully wicked jewel-encrusted crustacean) pays tribute to the late David Bowie, and is a playful change of pace to show the weird and wonderful world beneath the sea. Above the waves, traditional instruments and verses of Polynesian language appear in 'We Know the Way', and we are brought closer to Moana's worries about protecting the future of her people with the stirring 'How Far I'll Go'. 

Moana is a girl who is not only a curious explorer, attempting to prove herself as a leader, but she's also physically capable of handling a boat, much like Alice in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Representing strength, determination, and the wit to challenge a show-off of a demigod, Moana is part of a new generation of Disney Princess, including Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Merida from Brave, and sisters Anna and Elsa from Frozen, whose destinies are controlled by their own abilities and interests. Rather than being a traditional damsel in distress with a delicate body shape, Moana faces up to her own challenges, and her body matches the demands of her adventures. Moana owns her story without the need for any other hero or a romantic interest, leading the way for a more exciting brand of Disney Princess to follow in her wake.

In the videos below, Moana directors Ron Musker and John Clements reveal some of the hidden secrets behind the making of Moana, and discuss how important it was for them to accurately portray the Polynesian myths and culture. We also caught up with Moana herself, young actor Auli'i Cravalho, who revealed the incredible journey she's been on in making her first film, offering advice to those looking to follow in her footsteps, and revealing who inspires her.

Directors Ron Musker and John Clements talk Moana 

Auli'i Cravalho reveals her inspirations

Explore the themes of Moana further with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or log in to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.

The Into Film Recommends Podcast Series is also available on iTunes.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

You may also be interested in...

Viewing 4 of 4 related items.

Into Film Clubs

Into Film Clubs

Find out everything you need to know about starting an Into Film Club.

News details

Want to write for us?

Get in touch with your article ideas for the News and Views section.