Moana’s Mythopoetic Journey (Spoilers)

(see Part I, Moana and the Calling of Vocation )

The more I think about it, the more I realize how different Moana is from the standard Disney Princess fare. And I think one reason why Moana works so much better than the other Disney princess stories is that it is based not on a reworking of a fairy tale but on retelling of a myth.

I suspect fairy tales tend to lead to disappointing movie adaptations because the nature of fairy tale is that the characters are not people but types. And even when you try to round them into people, the stories they are in don’t really work for actual people. Fairy tales are morality tales, simplistic stories of good versus evil. The good guy triumphs, the villain receives just punishment, the boy gets the girl, or the girl gets the boy, they live happily ever after. But real life isn’t a simplistic fairy tale, there are no good guys and bad guys for the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. And real men and women aren’t trophies to be won at the end of a quest. True marriage is a vocation, not a happy ending. Fairy tales tell us about the moral nature of the universe: that there is good and evil, that teleologically good always triumphs, that bravery and cleverness and humility are rewarded, that greed and selfishness, and injustice are always punished. But fairy tales aren’t very good at telling us about the complexities of the human heart and the truths about our relationships with the natural world and with the divine. For that we need myth.



Myths are the stories that tell us about the human heart. They tell us about man’s place in the cosmos, how we relate both to the natural world and to the supernatural world. And while the mythic hero may often be a rather flat type, they’re often much more complex. And since mythic stories deal with more complex cosmic reality rather than just the moral world, there is more scope for rounding out a mythic hero than there is a fairy tale character.

Most of the Disney princess movies aren’t able to transcend their fairy tale source material to present us with true human complexity. Perhaps the most successful Disney princess movies are those that don’t transcend the fairy tale format, but just repeat it. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty don’t stray to far from the source material and insofar as they cleve to it, they work. But when Disney tries to round out their characters, as in The Little Mermaid, he stories fail miserably.


For example, look at how Disney failed to understand the heart of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. Disney didn’t get that the mermaid is meant to be a tragic figure who denies herself and loses her very nature for an illusion but then is saved when she gives up clinging to that illusion and sacrifices all selflessly for a prince who will never appreciate her sacrifice at all. Disney’s mermaid is shallow and fails to find redemption. She loses her voice, she loses her tail, her family, her people, her home. She gives it all up for a world that she is not suited to and for a prince who doesn’t know her and who will never understand her. Gives it all up for an illusion of love. For the illusion of happiness.

Likewise, Disney misunderstands Belle, who in the original tale is supposed to stand in contrast to her sisters who are selfish and greedy. When her father’s ship comes in and they are restored to their good fortune, she only wants a rose, she only wants her family to be intact. In Disney’s version Belle, who has no siblings, just longs for something more. She doesn’t want the world she’s in. There’s something a little unsavory and unsatisfactory about her scorn for the world of her village and something unsettling about her love for the Beast. I think Disney also misses the heart of the story and settles for a superficial reading that lacks conviction and substance.

But Moana is not a fairy tale princess, she is the epic hero. There is a richness of symbolism and a mythic vision in her story that are lacking in other Disney stories and perhaps that is because her story is rooted not in a fairy tale but in myth. Moana goes on the hero’s journey. She is Telemachus and Odysseus and Beowulf and Aeneas and Plato’s philosopher king all rolled into one. Like the philosopher king she enters the cave and sees beyond the shadows and will lead others out from darkness into the light of self knowledge and knowledge of the true nature of the world. Like Beowulf, she is not afraid to dive into the unknown depths to battle demons and to protect civilization from the forces of chaos and destruction. Like Aeneas she is destined to guide her people across the sea to a new homeland.

She leaves her island not primarily to find herself but to find the truth of her father’s missing heart; just as Telemachus journeys to find out the truth about his missing father. (And, by the way, Moana’s trickster mentor, Maui, is much much cooler than Telemachus’ Mentor, the trickster Athene.) But her journey’s scope is much larger than Telemachus’ journey for it encompasses the voyages of Odysseus as well. Like Odysseus she battles monsters— including shapeshifting gods, piratic coconuts, a crab who tries to lure her from her goal with shiny trinkets, and the fiery lava demon— she is shipwrecked, she visits the underworld, she has a vision of her dead ancestors, she encounters a beautiful goddess, she sails into the unknown and returns home to set her house in order.

Moreover, Moana combines the richness of Pacific Island mythology with a deeply Christian imagery. To me the sea in Moana appears very much as an image of the Holy Spirit. It baptizes her, commissions her, surrounds and protects her. Though it doesn’t fight her battles for her, it calls and comforts her in her hour of darkness and despair and sustains her when she loses hope. It goes where it wills and its designs are not always clear. But just when it seems to have abandoned Moana is precisely when she needs to learn to stand on her own, to trust. And even in the storm it still takes her precisely where she needs to be.

The sea also calls Maui to join in the quest and will not let him abandon Moana. He has been chosen too, and her mission depends on him and his magic fish hook. She cannot do it without him. She depends on him to help her learn the skills she needs to fulfill her quest— sailing and wayfinding—as well as to be the strong warrior in counterpart to her loving and knowing heart. He, likewise, depends on her to help him find his lost heart, the heart of the true self-sacrificing hero not the attention-craving braggart. And both of these intertwining and interdependent missions happen at the behest and orchestration of the ocean.

The first time we see the ocean it is unclear whether it is a benevolent presence or a menacing one. Is it luring the infant Moana into the depths only to drown her? The sea doesn’t drown her, but we are reminded that it does have the power to. And in the end the wave drenches her gently with a splash and gives her a new hairstyle and sends her back, remade, to land with a calling, a purpose, a vocation. It is a profound image of baptism, the sacrament that calls the Christian through the water of death to a new life in Christ, giving her a new character and a new mission.

But just as the initiation of baptism isn’t complete without the sacrament of confirmation, which seals the Christian with the Spirit and equips her with the necessary graces for her to fulfill her vocation, Moana doesn’t fully realize her calling until a later encounter with the sea, when the sea sends the great manta to guide her safely past the reef. And this happens only after she has received the heart of Te Fiti from the priestly figure of her grandmother, Tala. When her grandmother on her deathbed sends her out on her mission, she breathes into Moana the spirit of courage and gifts her with the wisdom and understanding and counsel that she herself received from the sea. She tells her what she needs to know to answer the call. Her grandmother helps Moana to discern her true vocation and that missional sending out is then confirmed by the ocean with the symbol of the fiery manta ray who accompanies Moana and helps her to move past the reef. The manta is to the sea as the dove is to the Holy Spirit and it is surely no coincidence that the manta tattoo on her grandmother’s back looks like wings.

Maui’s story is the story of Prometheus who stole the gift of fire from the gods to give life to mankind but who is punished for his trespass. And yet it is more complicated because in this telling the stealing of fire is good, the harnessing of the sun is good. Maui only goes too far when he dares to try to give to mankind the gift of life itself, which can only ever be a gift from the gods. Thus in a way Maui’s trespass is revealed to be the story of Adam’s fall. Maui’s trespass, his stealing of the forbidden object, breaks the world and introduces death and darkness and corruption that spoils all good things. It takes away man’s freedom, confining him to the island where once he was free to roam the seas and to play with the ocean’s waves. But Maui also becomes in a way the figure of the new Adam, the one who gives himself up to right the wrong, to restore order, to vanquish death and bring new life to the world.

If Maui is like the new Adam, if he is an image of Christ, then Moana must be an image of Mary, the new Eve, the one who sees into the heart of things and says yes to life, yes to hope, who accepts the calling, even though she does not fully understand what she is called to. She accompanies Maui on his journey al the way to the end and without her obedience to the call of the spirit of the sea he would not be able to reach his goal. Just as Mary gives Christ his humanity, so Moana restores Maui to his humanity. It is her wisdom and insight and courage that allow him to see that it is that very humanity, the relinquishing of his hook, which is necessary to defeat the lava demon. He can defeat the power of death only when he gives everything, laying down of his divine power in the form of the magic fish hook, so that he is finally only Maui, risking total annihilation. Only after he has humbly given up everything is it restored to him by the mother goddess: new life, new divinity in the form of a new hook, and with it comes a strange new humility, a docility to the will of the gods, though he loses nothing of his playful nature.

Of course the analogy breaks down at some point. Maui is only kind of Christ-like. He isn’t really God and he doesn’t really die, even though he is really willing to risk death in the final battle. Moana is only kind of Mary-like, she isn’t Maui’s mother and she . But it feels more true than not true. Moana gives us a vision of the true heart of the world: a world broken by sin and restored by love. A world in which mankind is never completely safe but must risk the wind and the waves, must always voyage on to new lands because what we think is a safe island home is only truly a way station on our journey.

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5 Responses to Moana’s Mythopoetic Journey (Spoilers)

  1. Emily J May 23, 2017 at 2:41 am #

    Wow, Melanie- I love this. Moana has been a big hit at our house, and reading your essays here makes me feel a little less guilty about the Moana mania. Now how to convey that idea of mythopoetic journey to a 3 year old. . .

    • Melanie Bettinelli
      Melanie Bettinelli May 23, 2017 at 11:23 am #

      Just let the story speak for itself, I think. That’s the great thing about myth, they speak directly to the heart with no need for mediation or explanation.

  2. Stephanie May 23, 2017 at 7:44 am #

    Thank you Melanie for such a beautiful and insightful meditation. Moana literally means ocean or sea in Maori. The most breath-taking scene in the movie for me was Moana leading the fleet of waka- seafaring canoes. By answering the call of her vocation to be a wayfinder she not only saves her people but enables them to find their true identities as sea voyagers. Today, as for hundreds of years since the great voyages, the name of the waka that brought one’s ancestors to NZ gives the name of one’s tribe, one’s people. They are real myths in that they are live in everyday life today eg in introductions.
    Having said that, the movie embraces many Pasifika traditions. The humour, the voices were just right.

    • Melanie Bettinelli
      Melanie Bettinelli May 23, 2017 at 11:26 am #

      I loved that scene, too. It’s so magnificent.

      I didn’t know that about the name of the waka being the name of the tribe. That’s fascinating and beautiful.

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