Moana: Disney’s Tropical Treat with a Twist

Mythology has always been a rich subject when it comes to storytelling. Gods and monsters, incredible acts of strength and power, mythologies across the globe can offer all kinds of captivating tales. However, though there are all sorts of mythologies around the world and throughout the course of history, some have been more mined than others in popular culture. For instance, Greek and Roman mythology has been drawn from for countless books, movies, and television shows. Sometimes, Norse and Egyptian mythology will be used. Even Japanese and Chinese mythology may be touched upon from time to time and used for inspiration. Frankly, there are plenty of mythologies that have gone neglected when it comes to pop culture. Among these is Polynesian mythology, a rich tapestry of stories that hail from what is known as Polynesia (a triangular area in the Pacific Ocean whose end points are considered to be Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island). However, Polynesian mythology is at last getting some exposure in pop culture, thanks to Disney. With their newest animated film Moana, Disney draws inspiration from that mythology and culture to tell a story that offers some fun twists to a familiar sort of story.

On the island of Montunui, Moana finds herself conflicted. Her father, the tribal chief, wants her to stay on the island and become its next leader, something which she does display a knack for. However, her heart yearns to sail and explore the sea, despite her father’s warnings about the dangers that lurk out in the ocean. She finds herself torn between these two conflicting sides, until a creeping darkness threatens their island. With plants being poisoned and fewer fishes being caught, Montunui finds itself in peril. Moana decides to take charge and remembers an old legend: that this darkness was spawned a thousand years ago, when the shapeshifting demigod Maui stole the Heart of Te Fiti, and that the heart must be returned to end this threat. Keeping this in mind, Moana takes a boat and journeys out to find Maui and return the Heart of Te Fiti. Even despite his more selfish desire to get his mystic fishhook back and put an end to his troubles, Maui agrees to aid Moana and two set off to put an end to the darkness before the rest of the world is consumed in its destruction.

As the latest entry in Disney’s animated canon, Moana offers another good tale to enjoy. Though the core story of a princess (well, daughter of a tribal chief, in this case) going on a journey and growing as an individual may be familiar, but the film offers some nice twists on the familiar tropes that come with it. For instance, Moana is actually shown partaking in administrative duties that come with being Montunui’s next ruler. She does not simply have a royal title and leave things at that. She is actually shown working, and does a good job with it, even though her true passion is sailing. Likewise, she is not shown to be perfect right off the bat when it comes to sailing. She learns and improves over time, becoming a good sailor with experience. Another fun twist that the movie offers is on the idea of the cute animal sidekick. Instead of the expected adorable companion, the animal that winds up with Moana is a chicken known as Heihei. He would be too stupid to live, if it weren’t for a recurring gag about how he also seems to be too stupid to die. Twists like these help to offer fresh life to familiar tropes, but most striking is the impact of Polynesian culture on the movie itself.

Though the main story itself may not come directly from Polynesian mythology, it does figure in heavily with the character of Maui. In Polynesian mythology, Maui is a legendary demigod with numerous impressive feats to his name. From slowing down the Sun with his fishhook to pulling up the islands from the depths of the sea, Maui is capable of plenty and is hailed for his feats. The movie captures his character well, presenting him as a trickster who wants to be regarded as a hero once more. His charming swagger is well-delivered by Dwayne Johnson, who voices the character with a fine mixture of ego, bravado, and heart. Beyond the presence of Maui, the music also draws heavily from Polynesian culture. With a score by Mark Mancini and songs by Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film makes full use of tropical beats and rhythms for its musical approach. The musical style offers a feel that fits with the setting, along with offering good songs that help to advance the story and characters. The result is a soundtrack that offers a great tropical sound and another good showcase of Disney’s musical prowess.

With its tropical approach and embrace of a culture not frequently drawn from for pop culture, Moana makes for a charming new addition among Disney’s animated movies. It offers fun little twists to familiar tropes and its inspiration in Polynesian mythology helps draw light to a mythology not frequently seen in the public eye.

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