The Cultural Significance and Symbolism of the film “Moana”

Apr 26 2018

The Cultural Significance and Symbolism of the film “Moana”

Published by

Adrian Baker Swicegood III

Professor Marshall

GEO 131

April 19, 2018

The Cultural Significance and Symbolism of the film “Moana”

Image result for moana film poster

          The movie Moana was one of Disney’s most ambitious films. The subject of a story is based on Polynesian and Tongan culture, which is something that has rarely been attempted within Hollywood. Many fears were raised prior to the release of this film because of the thought that Disney wouldn’t do the Culture “justice” and it would simply use it as an Exotic backdrop. This had been seen before in movies such as “Lilo and Stitch” where the story just happens to take place in Hawaii when it could have taken place on an Island. Many of the Actors in the movie also happen to be Pacific Islander, including Moana, her Father and Maui’s respective actors and actresses. Moana brings Polynesian Culture to the big stage and uses animation visuals like never seen before to illustrate traditional Polynesian life before Colonization by the “West”.

          Immediately from the moment, the film starts, Traditional Polynesian music is played in lieu of the normal Disney theme song. Also within moments following the opening credits, an expositional story of the Mythology of the Culture is done entirely in traditional Polynesian art style. This backstory lays out the beliefs of the Polynesians, which includes a Pantheon of gods for various aspects of life as well as Demigods (Half Human and Half God) that serve as heroes. At the beginning of the Movie, Moana, even from an extremely young age is given the “Heart of Te Fiti”, which is a relic from the Island deity known by the same name. This relic was previously stolen from her by the Demigod Maui so that Humans would gain the power of creation and life-giving. The ocean entrusts Moana with the “Heart” because she is the “chosen one” and will restore balance to the world by taking the “heart” back to Te Fiti. However, when the Ocean tries to give Moana the heart when she is a baby, she drops it on the beach, seemingly losing it forever. Moana forgets this event and grows up in her village and spends most of her early life preparing to be Chief of the Island of Motunui  (Something that she does not want to do). When Moana becomes a young adult, her grandmother tells her to follow her dreams and leave the Island because it is what her “heart” wants. Around this same time, m. any of the foods that the islanders of Motunui eat start to become diseased or vanish completely. Moana’s father’s reaction is to ride out the hard times because he is very set in his ways of styling on the island and not leaving to find another “paradise” as he puts it. Moana’s Grandmother shows Moana a cave containing very large Polynesian “wayfinding” ships and tells her that she must make the people of Motunui not forget where they came from and their culture. This creates a lot of tension between Moana and her father, which culminates on the night her Grandmother passed away. On that same night after Moana has an argument, she is rushed to a building where she discovers that her Grandmother has fallen ill and is going to pass away very soon. As Moana’s Grandmother utters her last words, she again tells her to follow her heart and to “save the people of Motunui”. This motivates Moana to pack her stuff and take one of the ships out to sea in the hope of saving the people of Motunui.

Image result for moana opening

         ^Te Fiti^

          Moana does not know how to sail so in her first night on the sea she encounters a storm that capsizers her boat and knocks her unconscious. Moana then wakes up on a deserted Island with tally marks surrounding her in the shape of Fish hooks. She immediately realizes that she has found Maui and must convince him to aid her in returning the heart back to Te Fiti. When she meets Maui, he thinks that she is one of his adoring fans, but after she informs him who she is, he blows her off and tells her he will not aid her in her quest. Maui then goes on to say that Moana should be grateful for all the things he has done for Humanity, including creating Islands and Coconuts. He also tells her that he didn’t want to steal the heart for selfish reasons and explains that he wanted to gift it to humanity. After singing this to Moana, he traps her in a cave and effectively would have left her there to die if she didn’t escape. After Moana escapes, she boards her boat and demands for Maui to aid her in her quest. Maui’s response to this is throwing her off the boat, multiple times but every time he does this the Ocean transports her back to the deck of the boat. Eventually, Maui reluctantly agrees to travel with her.

Image result for youre welcome maui animation

   ^Maui in a Traditional Polnesian Art style^   

          As they are traveling, Maui reveals that the “heart” attracts the “Darkness” that is responsible for slowly killing Moana’s island. Only a few minutes after he says this, they are both attacked by a ship of Coconut pirates and narrowly escape with their lives. The night following all these events, Moana has a nightmare where she watches as the “Darkness” swallows her island and kills her parents in front of her eyes. Moana is very shocked by this whole ordeal but when she awakes she finds herself on the Island were Maui must go to receive his Mystical fish hook. They are required to travel through a portal to the “Realm of Demons”, where the ocean is in the sky and monsters are around every corner. Maui is convinced that a Giant crab has his hook and his suspicion is confirmed when they reach his lair. After using Moana as bait, Maui and Moana outsmart the Giant Crab and defeat him, successfully acquiring Maui’s hook. Now that Maui has his hook, he regains the ability to shapeshift is to various animals, something that will be useful in the quest to return the “heart”. After Maui learns how to shapeshift they set off for Te Fiti but when they arrived they are met by the Lava demon Te Ka. Te-ka, years prior defeated Maui so he is very reluctant to fight him again. During the fight, Moana is knocked unconscious and Maui’s hook is nearly destroyed. Maui becomes frustrated and abandons Moana, so she gives the “heart” back to the ocean and abandons her quest. However, on the way back home, she is visited by an ethereal ghost-like version of her Grandmother that convinces her to carry on because she knows she has it in her to be a hero.Moana attempts to fight Te Ka again, but this time single-handedly. The fight is not going well and right as all hope is lost, Maui swoops in and saves her. Moana finally reaches the hearth of the Island but realizes that Te Ka really is an enraged and cursed form of Te Fiti. She decides to split the sea so that Te Ka can run at her and meet her face to face. Right as Te Ka is in position to kill her, she reveals that she knows that Te Ka is really Te Fiti and somehow “finds the good” in The Ka’s heart, thus releasing Te Fiti from her curse. Maui then reveals that he was the one that causes all of this and apologizes to Te Fiti and Moana. He is rewarded by Te Fiti with a brand new mythical Fish Hook and she decides to not punish him because of his change of heart. Moana then goes back to Motunui and teaches her people the art of voyaging. Thus, the movie concludes with a shot of Moana leading an expedition to new lands with her people.

Related image

         ^Moana teaching her father how to “Wayfind”^

          For many reasons, this movie took quite a long time to make. Most of these problems arose because of the difficulties animating water in the traditional style of animation. CGI was decided to be used due to the great advancements it has made in animation in recent years. Another smaller concern was the portrayal of some characters as larger than they actually were. Maui, for example, has spurred some controversy due to the reported claims that some Samoans view the design as culturally insensitive because even 100 to 200 years ago native Samoans were not that overweight. Finally, some concerns have also been made regarding the fact that some think that it is culturally insensitive for a parent to allow their child to dress up as Moana on Halloween due to her Pacific Islander descent.

Image result for maui is obese

         ^Post made by a New Zealand Rugby Player of Maori Ethnicity^ 

          This movie connects to the course themes in a multitude of ways including, defining the world’s region based on their geography and cultural landscapes. Moana does this extremely well and in regard to the geography, all of the animals such as Pigs, chicken, and exotic shorebirds are all very real parts of ancient Polynesian life. The structure of the village and how their community operates is quite a communalist, meaning that the local inhabitants of Motunui and Polynesia as a whole share their goods with all members of the society. In regards to Humans effect on the environment, Moana illustrates a world were Te Fiti was stolen from and taken advantage of. This parallels in the real world to the overuse of natural resources like fish and food on the island. This shows that at the end of the movie, when Moana returns the “heart”, effectively fixing the humans relationship with nature; this shows that Polynesians as a whole have a deep connection to not only the ocean but nature as a whole. I greatly enjoyed all aspects of this movie and it can definitely be used as a great educational tool for children if they need an introduction to Polynesian culture. The most specific reason I enjoy this film so much would have to do with the fact that Moana as a character broke many of the pre-established stereotypes that many prior Dinsey “Princesses” have been placed in. 

^My Favorite scene in the Film^


  • Roy, Eleanor Ainge. “Disney Depiction of Obese Polynesian God in Film Moana Sparks Anger.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 June 2016,
  • Flaherty, Keely. “34 Magical ‘Moana’ Facts You Probably Don’t Know.” BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed,
  • Herman, Doug. “How the Story of ‘Moana’ and Maui Holds Up Against Cultural Truths.”, Smithsonian Institution, 2 Dec. 2016,
  • Google Images
  • Youtube


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