Let me preface this entry by explaining that this is not a review of Moana. I’m too late for that train. It is more of a reflection upon some comments my wife made me the other day about Moana. For better context: my wife and I grew up with a steady diet of Disney movies, so we are basically Disney children. However where things differ is that my wife is really into Dinsey animated movies, especially the Princess ones to the point that she and my sister in law can recite, word for word, songs included, most of the classics f the om top of their heads. Her all time favorite is the Little Mermaid by the way (and she knows ALL songs by heart. ALL). She tends to watch them with a critical eye I only use for comic related things or my own writing. She didn’t like Frozen and is warm luke to Moana, whilst for me, Moana is my second favorite Disney movie (the first one being the Lion King). Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).
Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, it’s a sustainability parable is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).
So it was a shock for me a few days ago, when I finally had money to buy the blu-ray edition, that my wife said that while she liked Moana enough, it wasn’t a good movie for her. I was aghast so I asked her to explain herself and in summary, her biggest complaint is that Moana, unlike other Disney Princess movies (or Disney movies in general) lacks a clear villain, taking away some of the conflicts from the plot. And that left me thinking about what I’m gonna write right now.
Moana, for the most part, is a kid-friendly approach to the Hero of Thousand Faces heroic journey or monomyth as author Joseph Campbell called it (which by the way, if you are planning to write fantasy, it would be a good idea to check that book). From the refusal of the call to the visit to the underground, Moana checks many of the items of the monomyth. However, my wife is right. It doesn’t have a proper villain.
Teka is more a force of nature created by the actions of men (this is important later for the sake of the post), looking for the heart of Te Fiti for spoilery reasons. Other than that it doesn’t have more motivation that just exists. The Kokomora and Tamatoa are not the main villains, they act more as obstacles. But they are not the main antagonist of the movie. And none of them spend time on screen beyond a few minutes to explain their real motivations. They are just there. Compare that to other classic villains like Ursula, Scar, and Jaffar, who are antagonistc villains and you can see that my wife has a point there.
Now the movie does have a few antagonists, but not in the traditional good-bad dichotomy. One of them, in particular, is vital for the story. This antagonist is there to counter Moana’s views and help her with her personal growth. Notice that I’m not calling him a villain because he is not. He is for most of the movie an anti-hero at a crossroads and goes by the name of Maui. You will say: ‘hey he is the deuteragonist, the other hero of the story’. And for the last third of the movie he is. But on the first part of the movie he is there messing with Moana’s plans for his selfish/not-so-selfish reasons and is on a personal growth journey as well. It’s only when he realizes that both journeys share the same ultimate objective that he goes from anti-hero to bonafide hero. To put it simply, he is the Han Solo to Moana’s Luke/Leia, down to the last minute rescue in a falcon shape.
So if Moana apparently doesn’t has an antagonistic villain, where is the conflict? Well, I think that it does has a villain, but is not a physical one.
Stories like Game of Thrones have got us used to the idea that even villains have proper motivations, that deep inside, they believe they are right and that they are the true heroes of the story. Cersei, for example, does at first most things for the sake of her children. Only the Others/White Walkers haven’t shown a real motivation so far, acting more like a boogeyman or a force of nature. Long gone are the days of evil for the sake of evil villains, like Palpatine. But even so, we are still used to think of villains in terms of an actual guy opposing the heroes for nefarious purposes. And this is where Moana deviates from the norm in a clever way.
Remember when I mentioned the ‘acts of men’ as the cause of the crisis in the story of Moana? Well, it was their constant abusing of Maui’s desire for approval (the guy is still hurting from being abandoned as a baby) that pushed too far the balance, making him steal the heart of Te Fiti and creating Tekai as result. The ‘acts of men’ are also seen in the way of thinking uphold by Moana’s father about not venturing away form the island, forgetting completely his culture’s tradition of wayfinding. This is where Moana becomes a sustainability parable: the actions of our predecessors have caused a disruption on the futures of our descendants. I see Tekai as a symbol of Mother Earth lashing out against humankind for their excess, as a representation of climate change for example, or pollution, that withers the land and deprive us of nurturing elements.
It’s only when Moana understands this, that the ‘acts of men’, the loss of their traditional communion with nature, the close minded way of thinking and greed has caused this crisis that she is capable of reaching an agreement with Tekai to return the heart to its proper place and restore the balance. Of all the people of her island she was chosen by the Ocean, that allied force of nature, because she is not only smart enough to realize this but compassionate and brave enough to raise up to the challenge of breaking with the societal conventions, the popular wisdom of her context to find a new way of life. In this case, the villain is not a physical one, is an ethereal one composed by many negative thoughts that mired her, her family and even Maui and take a final embodiment in Tekai.
Sometimes, the villains of a story, the real ones, are not the guys in black robes trying to conquer the world, but the inner demons, the preconceptions, the baggage that drags the main character down. Those are villains of equal importance if not more and only when the hero realizes that and is willing to overcome them is that they become able to solve the crisis at hand. So I contend that Moana does have a villain and a central conflict, but not in the shape we are used to from other Disney movies. And for that, and for having such a kickass female hero that breaks from the traditional role of a Disney Princess (that’s a topic for another post), I think Moana is superb.