I have written a few pre-release position posts on Moana here in my blog, in case you didn’t know. Now that the movie is out, it’s only fair and fitting that I write a review of it. This review will have several parts so keep checking back for “more-ana”.
Before I get into the crux and meat of my review, let me issue a few acknowledgments and/or some disclaiming points.
First, Moana’s main appeal (emphasis on main) is better understood, hence appreciated, if the viewer has some profound connection and knowledge of Polynesian/island life and background - preferably raised and lived, at least for some time, there. I was born and raised in the islands (Samoa) and except for a few technical and artistic deviations, I am more satisfied than not with the storyline and island thematic aspects of the movie. In other words, if you are a viewer and/or reviewer, especially of Polynesian descent, born and raised outside of Polynesia, you’ll be hard pressed to take an antithetical stance on the historical background and cultural particulars of the movie.
Second, references and representations of Polynesia in Moana favor Samoa more than other islands. To some, this may seem a bold and audacious claim, but I think I can effectively back it up by pointing out not just the visual elements but also cultural and other references. And I don’t think that it’s by chance that Samoa dominates most parts of the movie, since of the five main islands of Polynesia - Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Tahiti - the age-old traditions and “culture” of the region are still alive, lived and practiced more in Samoa than in any of her Poly sisters. (It’s a fact, sorry!) Disney, because of its commitment to cultural correctness in Moana, apparently was aware of this and acted (no pun intended) accordingly. (Re: Update at the end of post to back up what I've said here.)
Why do I need to point out the Samoa primacy? Well because it’s helpful and advantageous to my review. Samoa is my specimen and case study in explaining Moana. My firsthand experiences and knowledge of Samoa augment and support my comments, analysis and critique.
This is a lengthy, though not necessarily a comprehensive review, therefore, I will divide it into parts. The review will deal more with the thematic, dramatic and cultural/historical aspects, and not so much the artistic and technical elements, unless absolutely necessary.
Moana’s storyline uses the typical hero’s journey template. Basically this:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons (blessings) on his fellow man.”
(Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. p.23.)
A Cultural/Historical Background
Samoa's primordial belief in man (or woman, in this case) and nature being intrinsically linked and inseparable is sufficiently portrayed and rendered in the movie.
(Update - found this in one online article:
“[Moana’s] ending allows redemption of the baddie ‘in a way in keeping with the movie. There's a problem between man and nature, which ultimately gets resolved when man and nature come together.’" - John Musker, one of Moana’s directors.)
Moana which literally means “ocean” is a given eponymous and grafted link. The “ocean is my friend” is one of Moana’s refrains. The scenes of Moana’s interactions with the ocean, occasionally being swallowed up, only to be restored back to life and reality are literal demonstrations of the “union” between her and nature. In the end, the shell, a product of the ocean, is Moana's proverbial statue in the museum of past heroes and chiefs on the mountain.
In Tala’s case, her stingray stunt and her reincarnation wish of being a stingray is not cursory or an inconsequential desire. In fact her stingray tattoo is therefore more than a coincidence and an evidence of the kinship between nature and humans. Tala may actually be hinting at one of Samoa's maritime rituals called “taliga agaga” (spirit acceptance), which may still be practiced by some especially on the outlying islands. The ritual involves a person lost at sea and when his/her fate cannot be ascertained, the villagers would gather on the beach spreading a cloth (usually tapa cloth) and wait for the first sea creature to crawl or jump on it. The creature or object is then considered the reincarnated “spirit” of the dead and the people will then wrap it and bury it as if the person had been found, albeit in reincarnated form. So when Tala says that she wants to return as a stingray after she dies, she actually may be implying the "taliga agaga". (“Taliga Agaga” is a ritual I’m including in a novel I’m working on.)
Most importantly, Samoa’s story/legend of Creation (excerpts below) is apparently the source of some remarkable imagery and allusions in the movie. It actually provides for the backbone of Moana. According to the story/legend, Papa (Rock) and Ele’ele (Earth) represent a creative duo. Respectively, Papa was the man and Ele’ele was the woman. Papa is also referred to as heart, or seed-rock (fatu).
“Let the Spirit and the Heart and Will and Thought go on and join together inside the Man; and they joined together there and man became intelligent. And this was joined to the earth ('ele-ele'), and it was called Fatu-ma-le-‘Ele-‘ele, as a couple, Fatu the man, and ‘Ele-‘ele, the woman." (Journal of Polynesian Society).
“Fatu-ma-le-‘ele‘ele; 'seed-stone and earth.' Fatu is a word which, in various forms, is found in all Malaysia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, in the sense of 'hard,' 'anything hard,' 'the hard kernel or seed-stone of fruit.' .... Le ‘Ele‘ele is here regarded as a woman, who, by the ordinance (tofiga) of Tangaloa is united (fa‘a-tasi, 'joined,' lit. 'made-one') to Fatu, the completed man. Fatu is the seed-giving principle, and Le ‘Ele‘ele is the receptacle of the seed.” (Ibid. emphasis mine)
Linguistically, heart, rock and seed amazingly all share a common Samoan meaning and translation of “fatu” - the essence of life.
The universal significance of the “heart” as being an instigator of goodness and virtue is inevitable and is demonstrated by the favorable life-giving effects of its return to Te Fiti, and contrasted well when she's without it, notably in her captor Te Ka's evil and destructive powers. The Tin Man of the Wizard of Oz, hollow and hard without a heart, hinges on the same theme.
Next Up: Moana - The New Polynesian Woman in "E Au le Ina'ilau a Tina".
Update: "Moana Directors say thank you Samoa" (Samoa Observer, 16 Dec 2016)
Speaking to the Samoa Observer, during a traditional Ava ceremony welcome and feast hosted by Conservation International and Samoa Voyaging Society, Ron Clements said they are ecstatic to be in Samoa.
“It feels great to be back in Samoa,” said Ron. “We were here for the first time five years ago, and this place was a huge huge inspiration to the movie. So it’s really wonderful to be in Samoa.”
“Samoa, as Ron said had a huge influence on our film and the way that we were welcomed by the people of Samoa made us fall in love and now we are back.”
Therefore they came and visited the different islands in the Pacific including Samoa to see and learn about the culture and history for their project.
They fell in love with the culture and they draw their inspirations mainly from what they saw and experienced. “The culture is so alive here,” said Osnat.
“In terms of the look of the characters, you know we went to both Melanesia and Polynesia in Fiji and all of that,” said John.
“We were trying to put together the faces from all the different islands of the Pacific, but around this area, we really felt so quintessentially Polynesian to us and felt like they have the beauty of the faces and features in the people and their gorgeous hair.
However, they all agreed that the movie Moana was mainly influenced from Samoa.
“We drew influences from all over the Pacific islands but the island of Motunui which is named in the film Motunui is kind of a mythical name but in our minds, that was here in Samoa around this area. And that’s kind of where Moana comes from.”