Moana was several different brands of delightful, but one aspect that captured my heart is that it draws its inspiration from mythology rather than from fairy tales—something Disney hasn’t really done since Hercules, and something that gives its heroine a very interesting dynamic. The movie features the trickster god Maui as one of its main characters and incorporates other elements of Polynesian folklore, but I was especially interested—and pleasantly surprised—to see that Moana herself has quite a traditional mythical hero’s character arc.
She is a leader, chosen by nature and destiny, who sets out on a quest surrounding an important magical object, where she ventures through the realm of the supernatural and tangles with gods. When it’s over, the balance of nature is restored and she returns to her people as a wiser and more capable ruler. It’s a quintessential hero-king quest narrative, which, incidentally, is also a quintessentially male narrative. But without so much as a shrug, Moana gives this archetype to its female heroine and sends her on her journey.
Spoilers for the whole movie after the jump!
You’ve probably at least heard the phrase The Hero’s Journey before. In 1949, mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined the theory of The Hero’s Journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he explored the idea that myths and storytelling are so important to humans that we’ve done it all throughout history, and also that most stories humans tell follow a very similar pattern. To use Disney’s Hercules as an example, the basic outline of a Hero’s Journey is this:
The Hero, in their home environment, receives a Call to Adventure that starts the action of the story (ordinary but socially outcast Hercules speaks to the statue of Zeus and learns that he’s the son of gods). Often the protagonist turns the Call down (Hercules disbelievingly says “I’m a god??”), but then they either change their mind or are forced into leaving the safety of home and are swept up into the adventure anyway. They receive help from outside forces that personify their heroic destiny, manifesting as Supernatural Aid from the gods (literally the gods, in Herc’s case), nature, and/or a mentor character who is often a wise old person (Phil the satyr, who trains Herc into a warrior).
The adventure begins when they Cross The First Threshold, the symbolic or literal gateway into the world beyond their home (Hercules flies off on Pegasus, reaching the Great Unknown of Phil’s island). There, they’ll face a Road of Trials where they’re tested, tempted, and beaten to a pulp (Hercules fights all the monsters Hades sends to try and kill him), all while growing and learning from the experience. At the end of their quest they will face a great adversary and win The Ultimate Boon, nowadays more commonly known as The Macguffin, which can be anything from the elixir of life to a magic sword (in Herc’s case, he’s fighting to win immortality and a place among the gods). They bring this Boon, and the knowledge they gained from their adventure, back to their people. If they don’t get the Boon (In Hercules’s case, he turns immortality down so he can live with the mortal woman he loves), they return home with the gift of wisdom and character development, completing the cycle and starting off back where they started but much wiser and stronger for undertaking the journey.
Apart from the direct Hercules examples, I deliberately used gender neutral pronouns there. But in reality, most of Campbell’s examples that he uses to map out The Hero’s Journey are male protagonists—and most modern uses of the formula feature male heroes. Campbell argues that this story structure is strongly tied to coming of age rituals and the idea of a boy going on a quest in which he grows into a man, and this idea seems to have stuck.
Ever since George Lucas used it as the basis of Star Wars: A New Hope, The Hero’s Journey has taken off as the framework for most action movies. Our protagonists are less likely to be kings nowadays, but the structure and plot beats remain the same as they were in ancient hero tales like the Arthurian legends and The Epic of Gilgamesh. And as the structure remains the same, speaking to these tropes that are thousands of years old, the tradition of having the hero-king be a boy has stayed too. So where does that leave Moana?
Moana fits The Hero’s Journey as laid out by Campbell almost step for step: she receives a Call to Adventure in her curiosity to explore the sea, but Refuses the Call in order to be a responsible chief-in-training. However, her hand is forced when the island’s resources start dying out, and so with the Supernatural Aid of the ocean and the mentorship and knowledge passed down by her grandmother, Moana sets out to start her quest. Moana quite literally crosses the boundary of the reef, The First Threshold, and leaves the familiar waters of her island behind, to enter a bizarre and frightening world of monsters and gods.
As with most quests, it doesn’t start well, and her boat is overturned in the storm—this is another crucial part of The Hero’s Journey, a symbolic death and rebirth where the hero faces their first challenge and loses. In Hercules, it’s when he gets beaten up by the centaur, almost losing his first challenge and getting mocked by Meg. But because they’re the destined hero, in this case because the ocean chose Moana and is helping her out, the hero is able to get back up and learn from their experience. Moana then faces a Road of Trials where she and her abilities are tested. Her battle of wits with Maui, their fight with the Kakamora, and their journey into the realm of monsters, all sound like they’d fit quite nicely into any epic poem or heroic legend. They’re the mini-quests within the bigger quest, where Moana learns from her near defeats and begins to grow as a character and warrior. In the end, despite being defeated by Te Ka, splitting up with Maui, and temporarily losing all hope, Moana proves her strength as a hero and completes the task she set out to do: restoring the Heart of Te Fiti. The balance of nature is restored, and the hero returns victorious as a Master of Two Worlds—a leader of her people who has the favor of the gods, under whose rule their kingdom (or in this case island) will prosper (another very old, quintessential part of the monomyth as Campbell outlines it).
Moana has a lot of deep, old mythic elements to it—Moana is a ruler chosen by nature to protect nature (chosen by the ocean to restore the Heart and protect all life), which ties into the ancient archetype of the king being linked into the land. If you have a selfish or foolish king, not only will the kingdom’s people suffer but the land itself will suffer, leading to bad weather, plants dying, and animals leaving the forests. This idea is heavily resonant in a lot of Celtic myths, especially the Arthurian legends, where indeed nature chooses a good king by only letting Arthur pull the sword from the stone. A water motif is often strongly present in these tales, for instance the Lady of the Lake, who, in other versions, rises from the water to hand Arthur the sword as proof of his divine right. Perhaps the Lady of the Lake and Moana’s ocean are distant cross-cultural relatives? Water is lifeblood to human society, after all—if the water makes a decision, it means business.
The archetype of crossing the threshold of the village and entering what Campbell calls “the perilous realm” is also very old and ingrained. Part of a traditional legendary coming of age story is this “leaving the nest” period, in which the hero will encounter all sorts of trials, battles, and magical beasts. The story of Moana is definitely Moana’s coming of age, where she pushes her limits, learns about the outside world, and grows emotionally, all through the process of battling monsters and sailing with gods.
A lot of legends feature their heroes dipping down into the underworld or a monster’s kingdom and coming out to tell the tale. To go back to Hercules, the climax of the movie is Hercules entering Hades’s land of the dead to rescue the woman he loves, and because of the Supernatural Aid of his family of gods, Hercules does the impossible and returns alive. Through this experience Herc is put to the ultimate test and gets his ultimate character development, coming out of the ordeal both as a wiser person and established as more of a badass.
The trip into the Underworld—in Moana’s case, the realm of monsters where she and Maui have to face the giant singing crab Tamatoa—is the part of the story where the hero is farthest from home and the most out of their depth. The battle with Tamatoa is a frightening low point for Moana, especially when she realizes that the all-powerful Maui isn’t as strong as they both thought he was. It looks like they’re both about to get eaten, but she uses her quick-thinking skills and resourcefulness to trick Tamatoa and get them both out. We knew before this that Moana was physically capable, but in her outwitting of a monster and return from the Underworld—something meant to be humanly impossible—she’s pushed to her limits and shows her true strengths, perhaps strengths she didn’t even know she had.
Unlike many other Heroes (such as the immortality-seeking Gilgamesh or the island-hopping Odysseus), Moana wasn’t reckless or cruel before her quest, but over the course of it she definitely becomes wiser, more sure of herself and her abilities, and a more mature person and ruler. As for earning the approval of the gods, she literally wins the favor of Te Fiti, the goddess of all life, and the favor of the ocean, so it’s safe to say that with her as chief, nature is in balance and her people will prosper. (She’s also buddies with Maui, and I can imagine that gets you some pretty cool favors when he feels like helping out.) She and her quest-structured coming of age story are very in line with a lot of archetypes recognized as the foundation of heroic legends that translate into our modern adventure stories—again, usually male heroic legends. But Moana is a chief rather than a king, and a girl rather than a boy on a quest to become a man. The movie doesn’t make a big deal out of this—she simply is.
Moana’s gender is a non-issue—the only time I can think of that it even comes up is that tongue-in-cheek joke that “if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess”, and that was more of a meta commentary on Disney movies than anything to do with Moana herself. Everyone on the island is fully ready to accept their current chief’s daughter as their future ruler, and no one is tutting and asking if it’s all right for a woman to inherit. There’s no talk of who Moana is going to marry (and, mercifully, for a change, there’s no romantic plot). She holds political power on her own and is shown to be more than capable of governing her people. There is no “you’re pretty good at this, for a girl!” talk or implication that having a female chief is wrong; her right to rule is simply wordlessly accepted as part of the story world.
It’s important to note, too, that Moana isn’t the only woman in the narrative—Te Fiti fills the role of the mystical goddess who is the guardian of knowledge and tests the hero’s worth, and Moana’s grandmother is a quintessential wise and eccentric old mentor figure. These are both familiar mythic archetypes that have little twists on them in themselves: where there’s usually some sort of symbolic marriage to The Goddess or temptation from The Goddess (again, tied to male coming of age rituals ingrained in the stories), Te Fiti appears more as a motherly, friendly figure to Moana, and Te Fiti’s rescue and transformation becomes a story of two women helping each other out. Moana’s grandmother being her mentor is also unusual, since most often this role falls to a wise old man—Merlin is the wizened magical advisor to King Arthur, for instance, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is a modern carbon copy of the trope.
Not only does having Moana’s source of encouragement and information be her grandmother quietly turn our expectations on their heads, it creates another story about the powerful bond between women. Moana might fill a more traditionally male role, but she never looks down on the women around her; in fact, she’s full of love and appreciation for them. These very different female characters all draw their strength from different traits and all respect each other, and so the movie ends up having a variety of female character types and ultimately says there’s no one way (or wrong way) to go about being a woman.
While it’s great to have stories that show women facing adversity and real-world sexism as they rise to power, and stories where women are powerful because they’re women, it’s also wonderful and important to show women being powerful with no one batting an eyelid. Having a young woman in the role of the destined hero king, one we’ve come to expect to see as male from thousands of years of myth and literature, is a gentle but profound challenge to gender roles in stories.
If you’re aware of all this history, the movie asks you, “Why do we expect this role of the heroic ruler to be filled by a man? Why can’t it be filled by a woman?” It’s all in the subtext, however, so if you’re less aware of the archetypes it’s challenging—or, say, if you’re a little kid enjoying the movie—it simply says, “Here is a girl having a magical adventure, and when she gets back from saving the world, she’s going to lead her people.”
Moana gives its hero’s role and ruling power to a compassionate, capable, adventurous girl instead of the default boy, and Moana fits and handles this role perfectly—a gentle but meaningful challenge to the very idea that male should be the default. What should a heroic ruler look like? Moana has suggested that the answer to this is changing, and rightly so.
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