Funny how a cartoon can get you thinking about all sorts of things.
The first time I saw Moana (pronounced Mo-Aun-Ah) I was not impressed. I didn’t like Maui or the crab. I still don’t: but I realized in watching the movie again that there are many things I missed that needed re-examining. Last night I watched it for the fourth time. Or was it the fifth? Still, I see something different each time that I go back to examine.
In typical Disney fashion it’s a coming of age story about a girl on the verge of adulthood trying to find her way through uncharted territory: i.e. her inevitable adulthood, represented by the sea. The reef and island are metaphors for her present childhood. Her father, in the style of the father in The Little Mermaid, is motivated by fear, and is trying to keep his little girl little.
This movie is about South Pacific voyagers or wayfinders as they are also called, who lived many hundreds of years ago before the Iron Age. I never knew any of this. I love being introduced to a culture and history I am not familiar with. Of course with any fictionalized story you never know how much is accurate and how much is pure entertainment. I thought much of the movie was pure fantasy with made up symbols and traditions. So my interest was piqued when celestial navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society talked about how the way finders used not only the stars for navigation, but the birds, the wind, the water, and even the taste of the mud to find their way.
For instance: In the movie Moana falls asleep and wakes up lost. Maui later tells her wayfinders do not sleep. Again Thompson confirms this. According to him, the navigator, stayed up as much as 22 hours at a stretch. In the movie they didn’t use maps. I did wonder why Moana’s ancestors did not leave any maps. Perhaps they would complicate or slow down the story. But I did realize there were no compasses. There isn’t even any metal in this movie. Watch the movie again. There is no metal to be found.
So Moana’s people lived somewhere between the Stone Age and the Iron Age. Yet they are an advanced civilization, that built huge complicated sea vessels capable of sailing across the ocean carrying plants, animals, and even family members. They weren’t just some men setting out to explore; they were entire societies. The Iron Age was around 1300 to 1200 BCE. This movie has to be set after 1500 BCE, perhaps just before the Iron age. So, without compasses, sextants, or mechanical instruments of any kind, these explorers charted the Eastern seas.
Moving on to the non history part
I wanted to write about the beautiful visuals. Not just the water, the greenery, the sunsets, and the sky. Those were all gorgeous. I mean visuals like the grandmother during her transition from one life to another. When I watch this type of story telling I remember the difference between art and technique. It’s more than pigment on canvas. It’s more than notes on a page. It’s more than a body moving around on a stage. It’s not just mathematical calculations done on a computer. This is what turns mechanics into the art of story. The word animation means to breathe life into. With the right combination of mathematics, and the right combinations of color, sound, and timing, an animated story can bring forth the entire realm of emotions.
The characters: some observations
I don’t think anyone noticed that Heihei must be one immortal chicken. Note his appearance with Moana as she is first 2, then 10, then 16 year old. Usually chickens only live about 5 to 7 years. But if they have good genetics and are well cared for they can live to 10. However: that’s like the rare 25 year old dog. It can happen, but it is the exception. I also noticed Heihei, upon seeing himself surrounded by water, let out a famous scream that used to belong to the screaming chickens in Warner Bro’s and Chuck Jones’ cartoons.
Maui is not only all muscle, he has no neck very little brain area. This bothers me. The top of his head is missing and his eyes are so close together he must find it hard to see stereoscopically. That would make it hard to land on a branch if you are in bird form. And, umm, why does he have a human molar hanging around his neck?
Now let’s look for a minute at Moana’s feet. They are not your Caucasian feet: long and narrow with high arches. They are wide and flat; just like mine. Her body is sturdy and her legs are short. She doesn’t walk as much as march in a determined fashion. How awesome is that? In some of the earlier character sketches her skin is darker and she is taller and thinner. But all character design is a process and every design goes through changes. I still have trouble with Disney/Pixar eyes being way too large for the face, but what are you gonna do?
Te Fiti is a masterpiece in character design. I love the face they chose. I haven’t found as of this writing if they used a model or made it up. The eyes are those of a Goddess: very exotic and unearthly. Yet she is the Earth itself. I love that she does not speak: ether as Te Fiti or as the raging Ta Ka. Ta Ka does roar, but rage has to have a voice.
Messages in the story.
We find out at the end that Te Ka is actually Ta Fiti. Her heart has been stolen and this turned her into something she is not. The lava creature she became is her opposite. She was born out of the water but couldn’t touch it once her nature had changed. This is what happens when we are hurt seemingly beyond repair. We become someone else. Our friends don’t recognize us anymore. Our rage, hurt and anger become all consuming. No one even recognized the true nature of the goddess until Moana saw.
I wonder what would have happened if the heart had been given to Te Ka in a manner different than the way it was done. What would have happened if Moana had thrown the heart down and run, instead of meeting Te Ka lovingly, recognizing and acknowledging the goddess’s pain. Would she have become Ta Fiti again, or would she have done something destructive? Sometimes its all about timing and who you can accept help from. Sometimes people think they know what we need but we cannot accept it yet. Sometimes a wild animal is hungry or in need, but you have to know what you are doing when you feed or help it. You could get hurt. And it’s not the animal’s fault; is it?
The greeting Moana gave both the lava monster and the island goddess is the same greeting seen by the islanders at the beginning of the movie.
I am left with a few questions though. Wouldn’t those boats found in the cove have been rotted by now? I mean, they were hidden there for years. Wouldn’t critters have moved in? How do we know the name of Ke Ta if she was too pissed off to tell anyone? Why does Moana still not have a tattoo? How is the next chief going to put a rock on top of Moana’s shell?
Oh well. It’s still good storytelling. I feel that even after watching it for the fifth time.
WayFinders: a Pacific Oddesy PBS
Hawaiian voyaging traditions
Celestial navigation. StarTalk National Geographic