When I saw Moana, I had just lost my grandmother and was in the process of finishing university and leaving home, so perhaps that’s why I understood it the way I did. Or perhaps what I saw in it was intended, it’s hard to tell. But the story seemed in some ways to reflect the emotions associated with grief and growing up.
The start of the movie shows Moana growing up happy, if distracted by her dreams of the ocean. As she gets older, her grandmother teaches her about the ocean, herself, and her people’s past. But as she reaches her teenage years, she realises that things are starting to go wrong on the island, similarly to how teenagers growing up start to realise that the world is not the utopia they thought it was in their childhood. This all comes to a head when her grandmother dies suddenly, and she leaves home to pursue the love of the sea – her strongest connection with her grandmother, and to try to save her people.
But even as she ventures out into the world, she has nightmares about her family needing her, and fears that she won’t be able to help them. She seems to feel bad about leaving them, afraid that they might need her.
Even the “villain” of the piece turns out to be Te’Fiti, a goddess who has been hurt in her past and is healed back to her true self when Moana sees her for who she truly is.
I have crossed the horizon to find you,
I know your name,
They have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you.
Moana’s words could almost be directed to herself. Her journey has taken her across the horizon to learn about herself, and the phrase “I know your name” reflects her song earlier when she becomes confident in herself, which includes the simple line “I am Moana”. As she speaks to Te’Fiti, she accepts that her grief and her failure to accept her parents plans for her do not define her. Te’Fiti’s return to normal peace and Moana’s return home to her parents’ acceptance of her passion for the sea seem to reflect each other’s happy endings.
Still, there is something deeply sad in this story of a girl running away by herself to confront her grief all alone. It seems to be one of the few Disney movies in which a character really confronts grief, rather than it simply being used as a plot point.
And somehow, I really related.