Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker
Written by: Jared Bush
Edited by: Jeff Draheim
Composed by: Marc Mancina
Traumatic experiences in Disney films are normally swept under the rug with some quick comic relief in order to keep the children watching from being too distressed by what they’ve just seen. Take Hakuna Matata coming directly after Mufasa’s death in The Lion King – whether through the death of a loved one or another experience, Disney love to focus on trauma and what it does to the character.
Moana is a 2016 animated musical adventure film which follows the journey of Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian village who is selected by the ocean to restore the heart of the goddess Te Fiti after it was stolen by demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson).
There are many themes in Moana that you can discuss such as friendship, family, the impact of humanity on nature etc. But one theme that I would like to focus on is the journey people have to face after a traumatic experience. There are four main characters who embody this – Moana, Maui, Tui and Te Fiti – but they are all at different places in their journey.
Let’s begin with Tui (Temuera Morrison), Moana’s father and chief of the village of Motunui. There’s plenty of theories about this man that he was the original ‘chosen one’ by the ocean to restore the heart of Te Fiti. His trauma stems from the loss of his best friend when they originally went out to voyage – from that moment on, he knew that he couldn’t lose anyone else again and tightened the reins on his villagers, especially his daughter. This is a similar theme to Finding Nemo, that he ends up actually pushing her further by this.
Then we have Moana who has been relatively untouched by trauma until the events of the films – we see that even though she feels restricted by her father’s parenting, she lives a happy life on the idyllic island where she is learning how to take on her new role as chief. But then she is struck with the tragic loss of her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House). Her loss is the event that prompts Moana to go on the journey that she needs to go.
This is where the different impacts of trauma come into play – Tui was so affected by what had happened to his best friend that he became reserved and stuck his head in the sand. People cope with trauma, grief and guilt in different ways as is shown by Moana. She has no time to fully grieve her grandmother and instead, is called to action by it. She wants to fulfil Tala’s dying wish – to find Maui, sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.
When Maui is first introduced to the audience, it is almost as if he’s a villain – he’s the reason for all of the islands beginning to decay as he was the one that stole the heart. But in the second act of the film, the audience learn his backstory – that (for some reason that isn’t explained) his parents didn’t want him when he was born and they cast him as a baby in to the sea. Ever since, he has been looking for acceptance of some sort.
This is how he deals with his trauma; covering it up with arrogance and the need to please when he pretends that he isn’t. All he wants to do is be accepted as a hero of men – but it’s only through fixing his mistakes that he can do it. But he has to address it and realise that maybe acceptance of others isn’t what he needs, but an acceptance of self. An understanding that he wasn’t the reason that his parents tried to kill him but it was through their shortcomings. He also has to learn that he can’t hurt people just because he is hurting.
Which leads us onto Te Fiti. While Maui is trying to find a way to fix his trauma, he brings it upon someone else – there are plenty of depths you could go to with the fact that Te Fiti’s heart is literally stolen but that’s what it feels like when something traumatic happens to you. You feel it in your heart, like something has been stolen from you. But as Moana says to Te Ka in order to bring her back, this does not define you. This is not who you are.
Sometimes, when bad things happen to us, we can lose who we are – sometimes, that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing. The embodiment of Te Ka’s anger and ‘heartlessness’ came in the form of fire and ash, a need for revenge – which is a complete opposite to who Te Fiti really is. She’s someone who brings life, joy and light. But she couldn’t do that without her heart – and in the end, she ends up forgiving Maui for what he had done.
Which is the thing that binds all of these moments of trauma – acceptance. Tui realises that he has to accept that things can’t be the way they were and if they treat the sea with respect as a people then there is no reason why they cannot voyage. Moana realises that she has to let her grandmother go but that her lessons and wisdom can live on through her and she can be her own person. Maui realises a similar lesson through Moana – he doesn’t have to be accepted by others so long as he is accepted by himself. And finally, Te Fiti learns the art of forgiveness and acceptance of Maui’s actions – she sees from his point of view that he hadn’t done it maliciously.
Obviously, trauma is a subject that cannot be universal – everyone deals with things differently and forgiveness isn’t always the best way to move forward. We are all a product of what has happened to us but we don’t have to let it define us and I think Moana embodies that perfectly.
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