We can thank Disney for a long line of movies that deal with identity and coming of age. In fact, I’d say that all the best Disney movies do: The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, Frozen. But Moana is special, because it focuses on an aspect of growing up that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves: the tension between the future and the past. Age fears youth. It fears the change that youth will bring to practices that seem to stem from time immemorial. Youth’s energy and optimism threatens to shake the foundations of the status quo, and so evokes suspicion and resentment. And yet, for all that age antagonizes it, youth needs age; it needs the rootedness of history, the continuity of a narrative that is larger than itself. In Moana, more than in any past Disney film, these contradictions feature front and center.
Moana lives on a beautiful island: lush coconut trees and a ready supply of fish keep Moana’s people well-fed, and the simple joys of life—weaving baskets, telling jokes—give them a steady, quiet satisfaction. It is understandable that the village folk and Moana’s father insist that she must find happiness “where you are.” Village life is cozy and familiar, a regular rhythm that stretches back into time. Everyone is content, “and no one leaves.”
Moana does grow up happy. If she is sad about anything, it’s her need to suppress her urge for exploration. But her desire is tempered by her sense that her people need her, and, more importantly, by her desire to belong. If she leaves to explores the sea, Moana knows that she will lose those whom she leaves behind, and will deal her loved ones a crippling blow. What alternative does she have then, other than to accept her destiny as chief’s daughter, and to “be satisfied if she plays along?”
As she grows older, however, Moana’s desire to break from tradition becomes irresistible. Moana doesn’t want to rebel. She wishes that she could be happy where she is, and sings: “I wish I could be a perfect daughter. But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try.” Here, she invites comparison with Mulan, another Disney heroine who struggles with a father’s expectations. Moana suffers a different sort of pressure than Mulan; no one is forcing her to marry for honor or to be a “perfect porcelain doll.” Nowhere does she ask, “when will my reflection show who I am inside” with Mulan’s jarring intensity. But there is something refreshing about how Moana asks her question nonetheless. Moana senses that her true identity can’t be expressed by simple conformance to tradition, as pleasant as it is. She resists the past, not because it is overly oppressive, but because she senses her own possibility—and the absurdity of favoring an island when no one knows how far the ocean goes. Moana thinks of the sea as the line of the possible, the acceptable, the taboo, and she cannot help but wonder: what would happen if I cross it?
The great wisdom of Moana is that sometimes, the past, which so often seems the enemy of youth, can the hold the secret of youth’s renewal. The present has a way of deifying the past: in the film, the origins of life on the island are projected back to time immemorial, and the taboo against going out beyond the reef is accepted as self-evident dogma. But the past knows better; it lives closer to life’s source, and so remembers how its decisions were once human and contingent, how the present reality could have gone differently, and that innumerable possibilities for individual happiness still remain untried. It takes a guardian of the past, Moana’s grandmother, to reveal the false stability of the present. She tells a dumbfounded Moana, “Do you really think our ancestors never sailed beyond the reef?” It’s no wonder that Moana’s grandmother is thought crazy by the village; with her love of the sea, she reminds them of the arbitrariness of their own lifestyle, that their practices are not from “time immemorial,” but are changeable decisions made by ancestors who were more complicated than the villagers ever knew.
Under the guidance of her grandmother, Moana finds that her future is rooted in her past, that even as she breaks with traditions, she stays true to the people who composed them precisely by rediscovering the dreams that the people of the present have cast aside. Deep in a forgotten cave, Moana finds the long buried canoes with which her people reached their island. Her ancestors’ song reveals that they didn’t revel in an immobile past; on the contrary, they were travelers and adventurers. And, even as they traversed the ocean, they could confidently say, “we know where we are” and, more importantly, “we know who we are.” Happiness, the ancestors reveal, is not about being reconciled to the present’s fossilization of the past. It is about going where your identity takes you, and knowing that, though you stray far from home, you are right on course.
But even as they validate Moana’s dream of sailing beyond the reef, the ancestors speak of a new role for tradition. They may be “explorers reading every sign,” but they also “tell the stories of [their] elders in a never ending chain.” Their vision is of a life that is not constrained by the past, but buoyed by it—that finds rootedness in tradition while embracing the ever changing fluctuations of the sea. It is a vision that Moana hungrily absorbs.
Although Moana is “chosen” by the sea, the movie is not a story of destiny. It is rather a story about how difficult it is to live in a world without destiny. The sea may have “chosen” Moana to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti, but it does precious little to help her along the way. Eventually, Moana finds herself abandoned by the demi-god, with her mission to restore Te Fiti’s heart by all appearances failed. She must ultimately decide for herself whether to press on with her mission or not. This is the movie’s darkest moment. Moana is shaken; no longer the cloistered island girl that she was, she isn’t the triumphant hero that she imagined she would be either. It is here that the supportive voice of the past is most direly needed. Moana’s grandmother appears to her as a spirit and reminds her of the travails that come with human becoming: “the journey may leave a scar, but scars can heal and reveal just where you are.” It is in failure, pressed by the question, “Moana, do you know who you are?” that Moana finally realizes that she hasn’t been “chosen” at all. The voice that she’s been following “isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me.” Her life is not set by supernatural destiny, nor by the past; it comes from her own embracing of her identity. It is in her acceptance of herself that Moana achieves her certainty—“Come what may, I know the way; I am Moana.”
With its bold approach to reconciling the potential of youth with the seeming immutability of the past, Moana is a movie for our generation. It speaks to the tension between our two most profound needs—our need to belong and our need to be true to ourselves. Our generation has broken with the past in more drastic ways than perhaps ever before. It’s reassuring to know that, beneath ostensible breaks from traditional life, there are continuities that bind us to the ever evolving narrative of our people and of the human spirit. By those lights, we can always know where we are.