Yes, this post is about the latest Disney movie, Moana. I recently saw it and thought that it has a bunch of interesting archetypal material related to the hero’s journey and the process of transformation underway in our world today. Reader beware, what follows is one big plot spoil, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to hear the entire plot, do not commence past this point. Or you can accept the bait of the guardian voice and trespass into the unknown. Enjoy
Plot Summary and Hero’s Journey Progression
Moana features two archetypal storylines, one based on Moana’s development into adulthood through initiation, and one based on Maui’s recovery from fallen heroic status.
The story begins with an overview of how Maui, a demigod of the wind and sea, stole the sacred life-creating heart stone from the island goddess Te Fiti. Maui intended the stone to be a gift for humanity, so that humankind may possess the power of the gods to create life. However, during his escape from Te Fiti, Maui is attacked by a lava demon of Earth and fire known as Te Ka, loses the stone of Te Fiti as well as his giant magic fish hook which allows him to shape shift, and winds up stranded on a desolate island. This all happened a thousand years before Moana’s time.
Moana is a girl from a Pacific island tribe. When Moana was very young, she had an experience in which the ocean “chose” her and gave her the heart stone of Te Fiti. Moana drops the stone, as she was like 2 years old, and it is forgotten with time. She is also the daughter of the chief.
As Moana in her adolescent years is being prepped to become the next village chief, it becomes clear that she is “called” by the ocean. Here is the classic first phase for the hero’s journey — the call to adventure beyond the borders of the familiar known, as represented by the barrier reef.
Meanwhile, Moana’s father makes it clear that nothing is needed outside of their island. It is forbidden for the villagers to sail beyond the barrier reef. He shows Moana the tallest point of the island upon which chiefs for generations back have placed stones one atop another to signify the tradition of the past. The song here is that the familiar known territory is safe and provides all that is needed, and that one should never sail beyond the reef. However, Moana is still called to go beyond.
The call to adventure is confirmed by Moana’s grandmother, Tala, who plays the role of the wise crone who grants the hero some needed piece of information or power totem. Tala reminds Moana that when she was a child, the sea chose her to be entrusted with returning the stone of Te Fiti. Tala was there the day this happened, and collected the stone for safekeeping until the right time. Tala gives Moana the stone.
Tala also shows Moana a hidden cave full of giant, sea-faring ships. Apparently, their ancestors were voyagers who traveled the world looking for new islands. Tala informs Moana that their people stopped exploring the sea because sea monsters began to appear as a result of Maui’s theft of Te Fiti’s heart stone. Relatedly, the urgency of the situation is emphasized by the fact that Moana’s island begins to experience crop failure and a scarcity of fish. Tala points out that this is also because of Maui’s actions, as Te Ka’s darkness has only spread for the past one thousand years, slowly sapping the energies from island after island.
Upon her deathbed, Tala gives Moana the task of taking the heart stone beyond the reef, finding Maui, and commanding him to return it to Te Fiti so that their island and all other islands may be saved. Moana embarks on her quest, crossing the threshold of the unknown.
With the help of the ocean, Moana eventually finds Maui, who turns out to be narcissistic and confused. Maui thinks that he is a hero among humankind, as he gave them so many gifts such as longer days, coconut trees, and other aspects of Moana’s peoples’ creation myth. But Maui is also freaked out by the heart stone. He is afraid because Te Ka whooped his butt and separated him from his magic fish hook.
After some convincing, Maui and Moana set out to reclaim the fish hook. They go into a portal to a netherworld by jumping down into this deep chasm. They emerge into another dimension, a psychedelic reality with dangerous creatures, bright colors, and a hazy atmosphere.
This submersion into the underworld is also a feature of the hero’s journey. Maui and Moana dip down into the dangerous unknown, battle a guardian, and come out with powers that are needed to confront the final boss of the journey.
In the psychedelic netherworld, they find Tamatoa, who is easily the best character in the movie. He’s a giant crab with a shell covered in treasures, among which is Maui’s hook. Played by Jemaine Clement, Tamatoa sings a song about his shine, and also reveals some history of Maui, which is importantly related to the emotional and psychological state of humanity in the real world. Tamatoa sings to Maui,
“Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of these humans
Who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough”
Later it is revealed that Maui was born a human, but was abandoned by his parents and then saved by the gods and transformed into a demigod. Through his life, Maui has been trying to compensate for his feelings of unworthiness by performing heroic feats for humankind. This is what motivated him to take the heart stone.
(Meaning of Maui)
Maui represents the Promethean hubris of humanity. The Western mythology has long been based on the idea of progress through learning nature’s secrets so as to be able to control and manipulate her to our will. Maui sought the power to create life itself, which could be the next hubris point of our time, as people are deeply messing with bio and nano-tech. In many ways though, our systems are breaking down because the idea of perfect control of nature through measurement and rationality (ratio-nality) has led to extreme crises which are unsolvable with the same thinking that created them.
Moving on now, Maui and Moana eventually return the heart stone to Te Fiti, only to discover that Te Fiti, in the shadow state of a deprived heart, is actually Te Ka, the lava demon. Here is the story of the divine feminine. When the loving, life-giving, nurturing, beautiful feminine is neglected or abused, she may turn into a ferocious hell monster. Moana sees what has happened, and offers compassion along with the stone to Te Fiti. When the light side of the feminine has turned to shadow, if one can see the beauty still in that feminine essence rather than rejecting or fighting her, the shadow can turn back into the light side.
By the end, Moana has returned to her island, the regenerative life force of the world has returned, and Moana’s people have reconnected with their ancestral origins as voyagers of the sea.
Moana’s Meaning in Our World Today
Ok. So today, your world, my world, this world we are living in, is a world in which the Goddess of life has been neglected and debased.
And the hero’s journey. This quest takes one outside of the realm of the normal, and toward a process of self-discovery by which one becomes a world redeemer. Inherent in the self-actualization of the quest is medicine which is to be taken back to one’s people and shared. Moana learns who she is, both as her individuated self as well as her ancestral self, and even more broadly, her Earth self. She takes her gifts back to her people, and reunites them with their voyaging DNA.
Today, most people don’t have the slightest clue about their ancestors. Yeah, maybe they lived over here in some region. What were their names? What did they do? How about before there were professions? Hardly anyone really knows. This amnesia is part of the disconnectedness and deprivation of the Goddess from her life-heart.
And Maui. Maui’s journey is that of healing the wound of unwantedness. Maui’s hubris is a symptom of his perceived state of inadequacy. Most of the people in our “Developed” world feel some degree of unworthiness or wrongness about their normal state of being. It’s not that most people were abandoned by their parents, but the conditions of the modern world just do not satisfy the deep needs of security and belonging and love that we all share as humans. There’s been too little time, too much separation and responsibility for each individualized household, too many stresses, not enough money, not enough free love and trust. This psychological state of being has a lot to do with why people have worked so hard doing things that have hurt the planet. The need to compensate for this lost state of love and being. This is also why a lot of feminist discourse falls short. Without understanding the psychological and emotional implications of how this way of life affects people, you will not grasp the root causes of patriarchy and other forms of oppression.
At the end, Maui’s magic hook breaks while he is helping Moana. Te Fiti gives him a new hook though, showing that when we give away our gifts then greater gifts come back to us.
Final Thoughts on Disney’s Writers and Marketers
Disney is playing at some interesting things here. I wonder who the writers for this movie are. Are they really into this stuff? Have they just done their research on Joseph Campbell? Maybe they are familiar with a wide range of mythologies. Either way, they seem to be drawing upon a wider reservoir of archetypal material.
They also are playing upon themes that are popular in culture, as if they are appealing to certain groups. In one scene, Moana makes an apologetic comment pointing fun at the fact that she is eating pork in front of her pet pig. This seemed like an awkward and obvious insertion of a theme for vegans and vegetarian audiences. Also, as my friend pointed out, there’s a lot of tattoo art in this film, and even a scene in which someone is being tattooed. This perhaps is a draw for people in the body art culture.
Regardless of intentions for marketing the most popular concepts or really hashing out the mythology of our time, Disney’s work here is a reflection of where we are. Coming of age, finding ourselves, reconnecting with our pasts, exploring diet, bodies, and art. All of this is part of a process of reintegrating the Goddess energies of life and healing this world.