Disney is a folklorist’s conundrum; it is great to see these ancient stories still circulating through the public sphere, and reviving in popularity, but the corporatization of the people’s stories leaves some distaste in the mouth. So, with that said, here is our take on the latest Disney offering: Moana.
To be fair, it was probably my favorite Disney princess movie to date, and a couple of songs were catchy earworms. It was thoroughly enjoyable from a superficial, entertained value perspective. The feminist in me reactively applauds that Disney are continuing the move away from the reliance on a Prince Charming to define “Happily Ever After” for their princesses. However, reflecting deeper on Moana and, Disney’s complete omission of Maui’s female counterpart Hina, I still question Disney’s sincerity and commitment towards the whole girl power movement.
From a folklore/mythology perspective my main issue with the movie (other than the removal of Hina) was their portrayal of the Demi-God Maui. Leaving aside the fact they transformed him from a slender youth to a borderline offensive representation of a stereotyped Polynesian body type, he was also portrayed as a self-serving, narcissistic and bumbling fool whose power rested solely on his fishhook rather than a powerful trickster god. Having a Trickster god is not unique to Polynesian culture. The Norse have Loki, the Greeks have Hermes, the Navajo have Coyote, the Yoruba have Eshu, and the list goes on. These figures are mythologically important as they often become the alchemist, shaman, or catalyst for change. While the change may be brought about by the trouble or chaos the trickster creates, it is worth noting that change almost never happens in an environment where the status quo is acceptable.
The trickster is also cunning, and that aspect is often overlooked. In Moana, Disney credits Maui for creating the Hawaiian Islands with his fishhook, but it doesn’t tell us how he used his wits to do so. That story detail involves Maui fishing with his brothers, and how he tricked them into doing his work.: upon hooking the sea floor with his magic hook, Maui told his brothers that he caught a giant fish. Their job: paddle hard so that he can land it for them to eat. His brothers paddle with all their might and are so immersed in their efforts that they do not notice the island that rises-up behind them.
Maui repeats the trick many times, masterminding the creation of the islands that make up the Hawaiian chain. His animated counterpart, alas, is mostly a muscleman, and not a brave one at that. In the movie, Maui deserts Moana when their trials become too hard, specifically when his fishhook is on the verge of breaking, an act of cowardice that doesn’t befit the mythical Maui.
The mythological Maui was forced to face a mortal death, sacrificing his life during an attempt to provide immortality to humans. Maui’s end is Promethean, and it’s epic, and Moana is an unfair treatment of Maui’s legacy, and the debt humans, land dwellers and seafarers alike, owe to him.