Out of all the movies that I regretted not being able to see in theaters, Moana was not one of them. I’ve seen most main Disney movies, and I like more than half of those I’ve seen. I actually love a few of them. But while I enjoy many kids’ films unashamedly, I rarely have that much to say about one. I tend to wait until they’re out on DVD or on Netflix, or when one of my nieces or nephews absolutely needs to watch it while I’m over.
However, as it turns out, Moana is one of the few movies I have a lot to talk about. And a lot of it isn’t great.
This is going to be full of spoilers. Moana is on Netflix and DVD, so I feel ok about that. Also, disclaimer. All of this is personal opinion. If you disagree with me on every issue here, that’s fine. In fact, it’s awesome! Leave your opinion in the comments to let me know!
I want to start by talking about what the movie does great.
It is a gorgeous film. Every person working on the visuals deserves a round of applause. From the hair, to the skin textures, to the facial animations, right down to the water, everything is perfect.
Within five minutes, I liked Moana as a character and was rooting for her. I loved that she is set to take over as the chief after her father, and gender is never brought up as an issue. I love that she legitimately cares about her people and we see her learning to take care of them.
The character design is good, and the voice acting is great overall. The reveal at the end–that both the demon that acts as antagonist for the last twenty minutes and the goddess they’re trying to revive is one in the same–is Epic Fantasy-level awesome. Overall, the movie had a fun, adventurous tone that was perfect for the story.
And last, I loved the underlying themes. Many Disney movies nudge at a key question from adolescence, but never really try to explore it. “Who am I?” Moana is actually trying to say something meaningful here, by expanding a usual one-liner into the main theme for a whole film. It’s a great basis for a kids’ movie.
I don’t think the movie is atrocious, insulting, or a complete waste of time. Not by a long shot. I just have problems with it that I have a lot to say about.
Why Moana is Broken.
The primary problem I had is this: Moana felt like it had certain emotional and plot beats shoved into it whether they fit or not. Examples are below.
1) The father almost burns the fishing boats to keep Moana safe. Uh, dude? You’ve established that your people survive on coconuts and fish. Now they’re having trouble finding fish. YOUR PEOPLE ARE STARVING. So your answer is to burn the boats that they are using to search for fish? This was lifted from The Little Mermaid, where Triton overreacts when he learns of Ariel’s hoard of human artifacts. Except, Triton wasn’t knowingly killing his people by doing so. And he still comes off as a jerk! Note that this isn’t Frollo from Notre Dame. This is a reasonable man and a good leader. This beat was to drive a wedge between Moana and her father, proving that she has to go on her own.
2) Gramma dying. Was she sick? For the time until now, she’s been the healthiest, most active character excepting maybe Moana herself. Sure, she has a line about her death as a hypothetical future. But this is essentially the same thing as if Mulan had killed off the grandma to drive the plot forward. Like, what? This is taken from any number of deaths of mentors/parental figures that drives the plot in Disney films. Frozen, for example. Except it’s established there that they’re journeying overseas, a situation where deaths happen literally all the time. Gramma’s Cause of Death was Plot Contrivance. (Or possible Stingray Attack. Those things are treacherous.) This beat is naked emotional manipulation of the viewer, and it’s a lazy plot contrivance to have A WOMAN’S DYING WISH convince Moana to set out. Some moments that would be legitimately touching later on are fruit of the poisonous tree.
3) Coconut dudes. It doesn’t advance the plot or develop the characters, and really brings up troubling questions as far as the setting goes. Also, Moana is superhuman for like thirty seconds for no reason, and that’s never brought up again. This honestly feels like someone dictated exactly where an action beat needed to go.
4) Maui’s hook not working. Why doesn’t it work? Yes, by context, his confidence is broken, and that lack of confidence breaks the magic. Here’s the thing, though: As far as I could tell, his confidence was broken BECAUSE his hook didn’t work. So yeah, why? Oh. This is a beat to add tension to the crab sequence (note on that below). Coming from a Fantasy writer, YOU DO NOT BREAK YOUR MAGIC SYSTEM’S INTERNAL LOGIC FOR A STORY BEAT! Similar to Gramma, the character development that springs from this means nothing to me because this is stupid.
5) Maui in the climax. Maui getting angry and leaving is fine. It’s a tad weak, sure, but it works. But why does he come back? Nothing in his circumstances have changed, as far as we can tell. He came back because this is where the climax’s unexpected rescue beat happens. (Honestly I think this beat might have worked, except the groundwork isn’t laid for it. Nothing hints that he’s conflicted about leaving.)
This is just speculation on my part. Maybe the writers added each of these moments in the final draft and are incredibly happy about them. But it doesn’t feel that way. The moments I mention not only don’t feel natural, they feel like the movie is trying to write AROUND them. They open up the majority of plot holes and logical/emotional disconnects I had with the movie.
Disney is infamous for restricting writers and proscribing what their stories can be. It’s wrecked a handful of movies, and it’s the reason that Disney films have rarely broken away from the formulas of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Their big hits in the 90’s are still, to this day, how they define success. After all the risks Frozen took, Moana feels like a huge step backward in this department.
There are a few smaller things that feel really forced, rushed, or badly-executed.
Moana has two mentor/inspiration characters: Gramma, and the ocean. (And yes, when the ocean is proven to be sentient and take a stand in the plot, I consider it a character.) She really only needs one, if that character is properly handled.
“You’ve been told all our stories…except one.” Really? Who all knows about this? Just you, Gramma? I’m guessing the dad does, too, but Moana doesn’t seem to think so. If it’s just you, how do you know this? And if you disagree with the decision to hide this story, why not share it publicly? As the Batman Forever meme goes, “It just raises too many questions.”
Ghost Gramma isn’t established as a real possibility, and it just feels lazy. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us had someone we lost return to us to offer guidance at key moments?
The ocean is incredibly inconsistent on whether it will help Moana and how much help it offers. I know some of this is played for laughs, but again, breaking the magic system to get a laugh is a no-no.
The father’s arc has no resolution. The mother works, because she’s consistently a bit player. The relationship with Moana’s father is a main part of the first act, and then it’s GONE. Also, his hidden, tragic backstory? Is not for Gramma to tell.
The village needs more time. Maybe we spend a few more minutes there in the opening? Maybe the climax gets the original island involved, somehow? I’m not sure, to be honest. But the more invested we are in the village as a character, the more we see its people suffering, the more powerful the primary motivation becomes.
That’s a lot of problems. But now that we have them tallied, the fun part can begin.
How to Fix it!
I make some pretty drastic changes here. But it’s all in good fun, right? Let me know what you think?
First is the problem of having two mentors. Gramma is doing more as far as emotional development goes, but she’s also the source of a lot of these problems. Meanwhile, by its very nature you can’t have an emotional connection to the ocean, and yet it is there throughout Moana’s whole journey. How do we reconcile these two things?
Kill Gramma. No, not like she gets killed in the movie as is. I mean she needs to be removed completely from the movie.
Hear me out. Gramma was easily my second-favorite character in the movie. She’s awesome. Wise, funny, and kind. But a lot of fundamental flaws revolve around her. If necessary, we can move some of the lines, the understanding, the peacemaking between father and daughter, to the mother. The mother gets more fleshed out, and the moment when she helps Moana pack is more powerful.
We’d have to move the narration off on another character for the opening. I pick the father. His fear and resentment toward the ocean can come out a bit, getting us into the conflict even as we’re worldbuilding. (Also, during the narration, establish that the hook is damaged, to establish that conflict early.)
So, who reveals the secret of Moana’s ancestral past? The ocean. This could be as simple as a low tide revealing a pathway. Or it could be as dramatic as the ships being on the bottom of the water, and the ocean literally opening up to reveal it. Either way, this builds on Moana’s relationship with the ocean, explores the ocean being an active participant in the plot.
The second big change… Have the father go after Moana.
Have him face his terror of the ocean to, in his mind, save his daughter. Make this conflict a cornerstone of the movie. Promote him to a main character. Not only does this allow him to have his full character arc, but he serves a HUGE purpose in the story. He’s a living embodiment of her doubt, the pull to go back to the village and delay the inevitable rather than face the problem head on.
He catches up, they argue, the storm washes them both ashore. Give him that moment of fear that he’s going to lose his daughter like he lost his friend (Though we only see his panic; we haven’t learned about his backstory yet.). And then…Maui.
If her dad is a representation of her doubt and the pull toward home, Maui is the lie she tells herself–that she can solve this problem without changing who she is. If she just does A, B, and C, she can let him do the dangerous part. Because HE is the hero, not her.
The action beat with the coconut dudes can serve a purpose here. The father is injured. Now he can’t physically force her to turn back, but if she doesn’t, he might die. She either has to turn back, or step up in a big way. He is the village, metaphorically speaking. And after deciding to continue, she has to leave him behind, to climb the cliffs and enter the realm of monsters.
In the fight to reclaim the hook, the hook takes some hits. It starts showing some more minor damage. We see the cracks in Maui’s bravado here, as he expresses worry about the hook. When they return to the boat, her father has gotten worse. They collectively debate whether to return home. Maui exposits how terrifying Te Ka is, how impossible getting past her is.
But they’ve all come too far. Now the only hope is returning the heart and reviving the goddess; as the goddess of life, she can heal Moana’s father. And Moana uses the “hero” persuasion on Maui.
Note here: The “hook not working” bit is completely gone. I’ve replaced a problem that was out-of-nowhere and had no influence on the plot, with a problem that foreshadows the lowest point in the movie and furthers already-established conflict.
The “Maui teaches Moana to sail” sequence is fine. It’s awesome, in fact. It’s a great way for them to bond. Her father gets development as well, watching her master sailing in a way that his people never have, watching her come alive by exploring her love of the ocean. Things are looking up.
And then disaster strikes. Very similar to what we have before. Except for three changes that make a HUGE difference.
One: We’ve been establishing throughout the movie both that Maui’s hook is fragile and that he ties his own worth to the hook. This makes the punch stronger when the hook is incredibly damaged, one hit away from shattering. Because she drove him on KNOWING about these things, his anger toward her feels more justified than it does with her making a miscalculation in the heat of the moment.
Two: Her father is dying.
This failure leaves very little hope for him to be saved. He tells his tragic backstory about losing his friend in the water. The ocean has been helping her all along, but it can’t help her here. She pleads for help, but all she hears is the water lapping at the boat. She throws the Heart into the ocean. Her father continues to speak, bringing her back to his side. He’s proud of her for doing what she believes must be done. Even if they’ve failed. She’s choosing who she is. And he’s proud of her.
Her father falls unconscious. She turns the ship back toward the home island.
The ocean throws the Heart back.
Her father represents her doubt, what she was, and the village at stake. Maui represents the lie she tells herself, that she can go back to her old life after this, that she doesn’t need to step up and save the day. But the ocean represents the truth of who she ultimately is, who she needs to become to save everyone, and what can be their future if she succeeds.
Here’s where I have to be careful. The theme is “Who am I?” and the answer is “Who you choose to be.” I can’t undermine that by having the ocean MAKE Moana keep the Heart, MAKE her turn around and try again. This is the single key moment in the film, the moment when other influences fall away and Moana makes a CHOICE.
What the ocean is doing is making sure Moana has that choice. She threw the Heart before in anger, not in decision.
She raises her hand to throw it again. Pauses. Looks down at her father. Looks at the Heart. Looks at the water. Looks behind them, toward Te Ka still terrifying in the distance. She turns the boat and starts back toward Te Ka.
Notice change three? No Ghost Gramma. No one swoops in at the last second to make her feel better. This is the darkest moment of her life. She is the one who has to claw her way out of it.
After a little while, the ocean throws up a wave to speed her forward. Maui swoops in earlier, before they’re in range of the mad god.
“You said you’re nothing without your hook.”
“I’m already nothing if I choose not to try.” The line change (along with some minor tweaking earlier in the movie) lets Maui shift priorities in a realistic and meaningful way. Having him come back sooner helps recover from the darker low point, and can help shift us back to adventure.
Moana enters this attempt more resolved, and more angry. (Maybe she’s even decided to help fight Te Ka? Flinging water somehow?)
The climax largely happens as is. (I’d like to shift things a bit so that the boat, with Moana and her father on it, and Maui are both in danger when Moana realizes the truth about Te Ka.) Te Ka is reunited with the Heart, reverts to Te Fiti.
Te Fiti saves Moana’s father. He is a symbol of the village, of what needs to be saved, and saving him has turned into part of the drive for the quest.
Te Fiti does NOT make a new hook for Maui. He entered the battle knowing that it was a potential cost of his choice. Taking that consequence away makes his sacrifice, and therefore the end of his character arc, hollow. (He DOES, however, get to return to the island a hero.)
The movie ends with Moana putting the shell on the top of the island and setting out to sea–and teaching her father to properly sail.
This isn’t perfect. There’s quite a bit undefined, still, and things might need to be reshuffled here and there to keep pacing and tone right. Not to mention, I completely left out the humor, which makes the above read like a Greek tragedy! But here’s my fixes for the main plot points I had trouble with, and even a few minor gripes.
The chicken is still completely pointless, though.