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“Look inside yourself! You are more than what you have become. Remember who you are!” – Moana

Amid the cacophony of orders and opinions – “Stay on the island”; your dream “is just not meant to be”; “I’m not killing myself so you can prove you’re something you’re not” – Moana overcomes fear and doubt, she stays true to herself and her ambitions. Listening to her inner calling she creates her path and destiny. Until Moana, Disney film princesses had all been more or less damsels in distress. The year 2016 saw Disney creating one of its most iconic feminist heroines, Moana, in the place of the traditional princess role, promoting the image of a strong and independent woman. The portrayal of Moana’s character sends a powerful message to young women, encouraging them to have confidence in who they are and not to surrender to the rules of a patriarchal society.

Moana, with its theme of female empowerment, came as a pleasant surprise to many. It was a deliberate attempt to move away from the patriarchal structure prevalent in previous Disney Films. The film follows Moana (voiced by Auli’I Cravalho), the strong and independent teenage daughter of a Polynesian village chief, who triumphs over many obstacles to fulfill her destiny and restore peace and harmony to her homeland.

The themes and characters in the modern retelling differ immensely from their origin in Polynesian myths which have produced a pantheon of gods and goddesses. The original myths mostly feature Maui, a Demi-God of wind and sea, as the archetype hero. Maui helped humans out of compassion, as is retold in Queen L’s Family Chant:

Maui became restless and fought the sun

With a noose that he laid.

And winter won the sun,

And summer was won by Maui.

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This corroborates with the song “You’re welcome” Maui sings in the film: “What can I say except you’re welcome. For the tides, the sun, the sky.” The image of Maui is a marvel in the film, with huge hair, big muscles, and animated mini-Maui tattoos he frequently interacts with. The tattoos display his heroic achievements. Although the Disney adaptation has not made any significant change to Maui’s character, this iconic hero is given a mere supporting role, as a foil to emphasize Moana as the hero of the film.

There have been speculations that the story of Moana was inspired by the mythological battle between Pele, the Fire Goddess, and Namakaokahai, the Goddess of Water. However, the protagonist Moana is not an actual character in Polynesian Folktales, which, as mentioned before, are mostly dominated by male heroes such as Maui. Unlike all the other Disney princesses, who stereotypically have slender figures and fair skin, Moana is characterized as an ordinary girl with a darker complexion and a fuller figure, dressed in simple attire. Here we can see Disney’s effort to move away from the stereotypical beauty standards to which many women are often obliged to adhere. This promotes a wider acceptance of different body types in our society. The directors of the film, Ron Clements and John Musker, embraced the sentiments of the 21st century and created a feminist character, changing Polynesian myths to promote feminism and challenging patriarchal systems in our society.

In the film Moana, the directors have incorporated the moral message of staying true to yourself and knowing your intrinsic value into the film as well as preserving the original sense of Polynesian storytelling. Throughout the film, the main protagonists struggle with their identities and who they are meant to become. Their inner conflicts are deftly depicted to show how they follow their own will while being pressured by the outside world.

Moana is the daughter of the chief and is expected to take up her father’s position to lead her people on the island. However, taking up this role would come at a cost: she would be forbidden to do what her heart desires – exploring the waters beyond the reef around her island.

The film’s rising action occurs when Moana is faced with this dilemma. When she sings the song “How Far I’ll Go”, Moana marches up the mountain with a newfound determination to take up the leadership role her father has prepared her for. When she reaches the top, she gazes longingly back at the ocean exclaiming, “What is wrong with me ?!” Her intense physicality, matching the lyrics to this song, perfectly captures her internal struggle of whether she should follow the call to set sail or obey her father and stay on the island. With the encouragement of her Grandma Tala, Moana chooses the former as the island is faced with a crisis of food shortage. She goes on the voyage to restore the heart of the Goddess Te-Fiti, which will bring peace and abundance to her homeland. The film showcased a woman’s determination to follow her path instead of succumbing to the pressures of family and society.

As the audience follows Moana on her journey, several long shots from a low camera angle showing Moana’s small boat against the vast ocean highlight her grit and willpower to fulfill her ambition. She is not afraid of the waves because she knows that her power comes from within herself.

This theme of female empowerment is further developed when Moana regains her confidence after nearly giving up her quest. With the help of Grandma Tala’s spirit, the previously diminished fire sparks up again in Moana. The directors effectively portray her change of emotion through the gradual change of the song “I am Moana ” progressing from a minor key into a major key. With this song playing in the background, Moana dives into the sea with determination to retrieve the stone she once cast out. This scene shows that she realizes her strength and power and that she can complete the mission herself.

Too often as women, we struggle to show our true selves for fear of rejection but Moana shows it is important to stay true to yourself, to follow your heart and not be swayed by the expectations of others, and to be confident in your decisions and know your true worth. As Moana climbs up onto the sails she proclaims, “The call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me… that come what may, I know the way I am Moana!” She reconciles with the fact that the scars left by the journey can heal and strengthen her. Moana’s journey radiates a sense of assurance for women in our society today to feel confident in their decisions and to follow their path.

Moana learns to recognize her strength and to determine where her true calling lies. With the social ideals of what a woman should look like, act like, and be like, we can often lose our sense of intrinsic value. But like Moana, we have to hold fast to our dreams. Because what defines us is not the set of ideals of this world but our inner values. The film Moana has perfectly captured the message that our power comes from within us. It has broken the stereotypes formed in traditional Disney films and hopefully led our society a step closer to recognizing the value of female empowerment.

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