Moana Review: Female Bonding With An Unnecessary Male (Spoilers)


I saw Moana on its opening night! Very exciting, and for some reason there was practically no one in the theater. Night before Thanksgiving, I suppose?

Overall, I liked it. I found it emotionally moving, and the spiritual tone was enchanting to me. It is beautifully animated, and the music is absolutely beautiful (not surprising to me, as Lin Manuel-Miranda, writer and original star of Hamilton, cowrote the music). I found the messages and themes meaningful. There were a few times when I was almost brought to tears. That said, I do have some major complaints, most of which regard Maui, which I’m trying not to let color my entire interpretation of the movie.

Spoilers below! (And an unintentionally long review.)

First, the things I liked. One of the things I loved best about the movie was the relationship between Moana and her grandmother, the crazy lady who spends her days dancing with the ocean and rays. Gramma Tala is the wise, spiritual guide to Moana, who encourages her to follow her heart to the ocean, rather than take on her inborn duties as the future chief of her tribe. In a film with mostly male characters apart from its lead, I very much appreciated the bond Moana and her grandmother shared. It was refreshing to have a relationship between two women to balance the male prominence of the film. Gramma Tala’s death scene was one of the scenes that I teared up at. One of the things that Gramma tells Moana towards the beginning of the movie is that she is going to reincarnate into a ray, and after her death, she later appears to Moana in her new form, as a beautiful, glowing manta ray (which for some reason was actually smaller in the film than they are in real life – in real life they’re huge!). She then appears as a spirit in her human form when Moana is at a low point in her journey, and continues to be Moana’s guide and emotional support, just as she was in life. I really loved that the emotional heart of the movie was the relationship between these two women, and I very much related to their relationship. Seeing two different generations of women inspire and believe in each other was a highlight of the film for me.

The topic of women relating to and understanding each other brings me to what may be my favorite thing about the film, which was its ending. I’ll need to explain the premise of the movie for this. At the beginning of time, the goddess Tefiti, who held the power to create life itself, made the first island (which was also called Tefiti). From that island, more appeared. At the center of the island was a stone known as the “Heart,” which was the source of Tefiti’s power to create life. A thousand years ago, the demigod Maui stole the Heart from Tefiti, and a horrible blackness (I call it the Black Death) began to consume the island. As Maui was fleeing with the Heart, a mysterious lava monster appeared, trying to take the Heart for itself. Maui fought the monster, and both he and the Heart disappeared. Ever since, monsters have searched for the Heart, wanting its power for their own, and the blackness that consumed the island of Tefiti still threatens to one day spread out and kill everyone. Now, a thousand years later, Moana is the future chief of her island. The fish the islanders eat become scarce, and the coconuts they depend on become diseased. Upon her death, Gramma tells Moana to leave their island and find Maui, despite the rule that no one leave, and gives the Heart to Moana.

After finding Maui, Moana takes him to the island of Tefiti, where they battle the lava monster that still resides there. The monster is huge, terrifying, angry, and gender neutral, although I saw it as male for most of the movie, as I’m sure many others did. Moana desperately tries to deliver the Heart to the center of Tefiti while Maui distracts the lava monster, but she finds that most of the island has disappeared. (For some reason there’s still one peak?) Just as the lava monster is about to strike Maui, Moana notices a spiral symbol on the monster’s chest, the same symbol that is on the Heart. She holds the Heart up to shine at the monster, and it stops, staring. Moana realizes that the monster is Tefiti, which is why it always stays at the island and is so desperate to get the Heart back. All along, it was Tefiti trying to get her Heart back. This is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, when Moana finally understands, and the waters between her and Tefiti part so that Moana can walk up to Tefiti. The music over this scene is breathtaking. The fact that this angry monster was really just a woman who wanted back what was rightfully hers, and what was so precious to her, when we had thought it was simply a convenient enemy to add suspense throughout the whole film was brilliant. Once I knew that the monster was really Tefiti, I thought it was incredibly obvious, but it hadn’t once occurred to me, even when we were shown that most of the island of Tefiti was missing. To me, that’s how a big reveal should be done. Once you realize the truth, it should seem obvious even though you never thought of it before. And the best part of all about this was that the film ended with two women understanding and connecting with each other. Moana saw past the frightening, ugly exterior to realize who Tefiti was. (This also fits the movie because “who are you” is a theme throughout it.) Moana places the Heart in the center of the spiral on Tefiti’s chest, and Tefiti once again becomes a beautiful, huge, feminine goddess covered in plants, holding Moana in her giant hand. I loved the way that the movie has Gramma Tala helping Moana so that Moana can help Tefiti. At its heart, the movie is about women understanding, encouraging and helping each other.

The theme of women relating to other women was excellent, and I loved the movie thematically in many ways. In the beginning, when Moana is a small toddler (who is ADORABLE), she is “chosen” by the ocean as the one who will one day find Maui and restore the Heart to Tefiti. This scene starts with Moana helping a baby sea turtle make it to the ocean without being eaten on the way. Then the ocean begins to slowly part, with Moana walking down in the middle of the shallow parted ocean, and the water twirls her hair. In amongst this, the Heart is on the sand. Moana briefly picks it up but drops it when her father comes and scolds her for going near the water. This was another of the scenes that made me tear up. It was beautifully done. I could feel Moana’s joy and spirit, and in that moment I connected with her more than I did at any other point in the movie, with the possible exception of when she realizes the lava monster is Tefiti.

The plot is a weak point, as in there isn’t a lot of it. The bulk of the movie is spent doing meaningless things like searching for Maui, or searching for Maui’s hook, or battling evil coconuts. (Yes. They were frightening, but their ships were awesome.) I thought the coconut battle might lead to bonding between Moana and Maui, him learning that she is capable and agreeing to help her, but instead it seemed to have no meaning or use for the story thematically or to further the plot. Someone on the creative team just really likes coconuts, I guess. The ultimate goal of the movie, to restore the Heart to Tefiti, and the themes throughout were very appealing to me, but the execution for the majority of the story was poor, and a lot of that was due to the inclusion of the character of Maui, a demigod. A lot of time would have been cut if we hadn’t bothered with the time wasting, irritating, lazily written plot device that is Maui.

I thought that Maui’s involvement was completely unnecessary to the story, and his themes didn’t seem to fit in with the themes of the rest of the movie. He was a nearly intolerable character to me. He is incredibly egotistical, selfish, and shallow. He makes several sexist comments toward Moana. He calls her “princess,” for example, even though she isn’t exactly a princess, implying that she needs special treatment in some way. Actually, Maui is the one who is high maintenance, being very concerned with things like keeping his hair “silky,” while Moana is mostly concerned with saving her people. Then, we get the sad backstory that is obligatory for characters like Maui. His parents didn’t want him when he was born, so they threw him into the ocean. The gods saved him and turned him into a demigod, and since then he’s spent his entire existence doing as many things to help humans as he could so that they would love him. This was what he was trying to do when he stole the Heart from Tefiti. His goal was to give it to humans so that they could create life themselves. I suppose this was supposed to endear us to him, but it had no affect on me. His goal was ultimately selfish. I found him nothing but irritating for the entire film. When Moana first washes up on the island on which Maui has been stranded since stealing the Heart from Tefiti, he sings a song about how she should be saying thank you (it’s called You’re Welcome) for all the wonderful things he’s done for humanity, despite the fact that he is responsible for Moana’s people now being in grave danger. Moana goes along with it and seems delighted by his “charms,” and at the end of the song, he traps her in a cave and takes her boat. She manages to escape and catch him in the water as he’s leaving the island, at which point they argue about whether Maui should help her save her people or not. He has no interest in doing so, and it is only after she appeals to his need to be adored that he finally agrees to help. At this point, they set off to find his magical hook, which gives him his powers to shape shift and fight monsters. (This movie has a lot of MacGuffins. Maui himself is one, and then he has one of his own to go with himself!) Then we waste a lot of time fighting a giant crab monster who really reminded me of David Bowie. Once they successfully retrieve Maui’s hook, they then go to fight the lava monster to restore the Heart to Tefiti, even though Maui doesn’t have a proper handle on his powers yet, having been separated from his hook for so long. When they face the lava monster, Maui’s hook is damaged, and he becomes angry at Moana. At this point we get his sob story, and despite her sympathy and attempts to relate to him, he brushes her off and leaves, wanting nothing to do with her or her mission. So, let’s review: Maui screwed everything up by stealing the Heart, then told Moana she should be nothing but grateful to him because so what if he’s doomed her and her people, he’s helped them before, then left Moana in a cave (she would have died in there if it weren’t for her intelligence, let’s face it) and took her boat, then only agreed to help save humanity for selfish reasons, then blames Moana for his hook being damaged and leaves her. All the while, he’s dismissive and insulting to her. And we’re supposed to sympathize with this character just because his parents didn’t want him? Which he’s probably had thousands of years to deal with at this point? I kind of understand why his parents didn’t want him.

After Maui leaves Moana, she goes to fight the lava monster herself, which of course she can’t do alone, because being smart, talented, persistent, the chosen one, and the hero of the story doesn’t mean much if you’re a woman. So Maui shows back up again, and we are given no explanation for his change of heart. Moana is thrilled to see him, and it is only with his help that she is able to get past the lava monster to the spot where the island of Tefiti should be. Maui’s hook is destroyed by the lava monster. Then, after Moana has placed the Heart back where it belongs with Tefiti, Tefiti simply gives Maui an unhappy look (not even an angry one), then smiles at him when he says sorry. Then she gives him a new hook. I wasn’t surprised that she forgave him so easily, but it still upset me, because this was the person who had stolen the most precious thing to her, something that belongs to her, and he did it for selfish reasons, even if his intended outcome may have been good for some people. It was Maui’s selfishness and stupidity that caused the world to begin to fall apart, yet both Moana and Tefiti reward him for simply doing the right thing and helping to right his wrong, as if this was noble. Knowing Maui, he most likely only did the right thing because he remembered how much he needs the adoration of humans, given that the film gives us no reason to think otherwise.

But Maui being given the Not As Big Of A Jerk As You Could Have Been award fits with the more subtle misogynistic undertones of the film. Although Moana is the future leader of her island, the past leaders listed were all men, including her father, the current chief. No comment is made about her being female, which implies that it is not culturally frowned upon for the chief to be a woman, so why did the writers choose to make all of the past leaders male? Her father is extremely controlling, not letting her even go near boats and yelling at her when she suggests going farther out to sea when there aren’t enough fish in their usual fishing spots. Her relationship with her father is much more emphasized than her relationship with her mother, who is a sweet, docile non-character. Her sole purpose is to explain to Moana that her father is hard on her because he sees himself in her, and that he doesn’t want her going out to sea because, you guessed it, he has a tragic backstory! He once went too far into the sea with his best friend, and his friend died, so now he’s overprotective of Moana to keep that from happening again. This was very contrived and cliche, and again, it excused a man for poor behavior because his life hasn’t been perfect, just as Maui is excused because his life wasn’t perfect. (I mean, come on, Maui was saved by the gods and made into a demigod. Yes, it sucks his parents didn’t want him, but he’s also extremely lucky and seems to have no gratitude. But enough of my hatred for Maui.) In addition, most of the side characters are male, including the chicken sidekick (terrible representation of a chicken, by the way – no chicken is too stupid to find food), the pig sidekick, David Bowie crab, the evil coconuts, all of the fishermen and explorers, and most of the speaking randos of the island. That said, at least the sentient ocean stayed gender neutral, and the lava monster was gender neutral until it was revealed to be female, which was nice.

I was also bothered by what I felt like was an unresolved issue. Early in Maui and Moana’s time together, when they are bickering, Maui asks Moana why the ocean doesn’t simply return the Heart to Tefiti itself if it’s so smart, to which Moana has no answer. This is never addressed again, which was disappointing and confusing to me, because I thought it was a good question. (Maui’s one useful thought in the film.)

Random note – there were a few jokes about the genre itself, which I loved. For example, after the end credits, there is a brief clip of David Bowie crab feeling sorry for himself, and he tells the audience that if he were small and had a Jamaican accent, they would like him. (Or something along those lines. I can’t remember the exact wording, but that was the sentiment.) The crab’s lair, the Realm of Monsters, was one of my favorite things in the movie, despite it being unnecessary for plot or character development.

Despite my many complaints, I enjoyed the movie overall. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, just for the visuals and the moments between Moana, Gramma Tala and Tefiti.