Moana, Queen of the Sea...and Story

I was so excited to see the film with an audience of professionals. I had heard from some friends working on Disney’s Moana that there had been some extraordinarily difficult technical challenges. The water had to be animated in 3D which is an incredible challenge, and people I know and love had worked long hard hours on the film to make it the most beautiful if could be. I didn’t know anything else about the film, except that it was set in the Pacific Islands, and that I only knew because of the release posters. People who work at Disney learn early that they have to be tight-lipped or risk losing their prestigious jobs. I pulled onto the Disney animation lot, drove past the famous “hat building” that sports a 30 foot high magician’s cone from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and into the underground parking garage. I was excited to be there, as I always am when I go to Disney. Even if I’m there for a mundane meeting I still get goosey as I drive onto the lot.

I had the good fortune to see Moana in one of the larger theaters on the lot with a packed audience of members of the professional group Women In Animation. After the screening there would be a panel of filmmakers taking questions. I was fresh from writing my thesis on the new mythic structure I had discovered, The Path of the Queen. I had concluded my research before Moana was released. I focused on Frozen and Maleficent, the most recent in their filmography to that point. In my thesis I had predicted that Disney’s next female protagonist would not be a Princess but a “Queen” according to my definition.

I came to this conclusion after examining the Disney canon from the beginning of animated films, starting with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s first animated feature film. By looking at the female characters over such a long period of time and history, I was able to notice movement in the character arcs that were like looking at the rings of trees over time. There were big shifts in the portrayal of female characters, and always in the same direction.

The Divided Woman character at the center of my thesis was everywhere in these films. She was Aurora and Maleficent, Ariel as a Mermaid, and then as a human, Cinderella and her stepmother, and many more. Over the roughly eighty years of animated films, the female characters had come closer and closer together in relationship over the course of time.

For example, in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Evil Queen has a given name that we never hear. She is referred to only as “The Evil Queen,” in much the same way that the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz has no other name. According to the history of the film, her name is Queen Grimhilde, but you have to be in search of this information to find it.

Snow White and The Evil Queen could not be more different. Where Snow White is innocent and pure, The Evil Queen is cunning and powerful. The Evil Queen has no compassion for Snow White. Meanwhile it looks like poor Snow White doesn’t have much of a clue about the world, offering herself as a maid to seven dwarfs in the forest in her best attempt at survival. As the Disney film canon moves forward through time, the characters of the Maiden in Search of Relationship (MISOR) and Magical, Isolated, Powerful, & Endangered (MIPE) come closer together. Their relationships becomes less fragile and more interdependent.

Aurora’s nemesis in Sleeping Beauty has a name, Maleficent. Cinderella tries to connect with her evil stepsisters and stepmother. Ariel herself is split in half, as the legged MISOR, and as a mermaid MIPE. Belle struggles between the part of herself that wants to “save” the beast, and the girl who had loved her father. Mulan willingly goes to war as Ping to save her father’s life and restore honor to her family. Rapunzel loves her stepmother, and believes for a while she is there to protect her. Merida’s mother is turned into a bear, the two reconcile their adversarial relationship when mom is still a wild animal. Frozen’s two princess protagonists are sisters who long for one another from a distance, only to come together under a banner of love. The trajectory of these film-based relationships over time shows that the ideas of women in those time periods has changed as the times have changed. Women went from being at odds with one another over youth, beauty, and power, to being collaborative, integrated, and connected.

Looking at these female character’s struggles, demonstrates the distance Disney has traveled in reconciling the role of women over the last 80+ years. This likely has to do with the increasing number of women who have joined the filmmaking ranks, but also speaks to the change in the culture over the same time period. The collective voice of what we expect for and from women has been represented in the more recent films as more connected and collaborative rather than distrustful and distant.

In 2016, when my thesis predicted that Disney’s next female protagonist would be a Queen, it was based on the terms of my research. I had an acronym for the Queen, SULLA. This stood for Strong, Unmarried, Life, and Love Affirming. Since the thesis I haven’t used this acronym as much as I have used the MIPE and MISOR acronyms. Though I don’t think SULLA is the right ancronym to describe every Queen, (mostly because of the “U” for “unmarried”) it has bearing on the title character of Disney’s Moana.

Before I dive too far into the story, I also want to include some information about the making of the film that I learned from attending that first screening. In the last four decades or so of making animated features, Disney animation has made a few missteps, which has made them more invested in being careful about the cultures they represent. The result in Moana is an attempt at an honest, authentic, and well-researched cultural standpoint. For Moana, the studio created the Oceanic Trust, a group of professional anthropologists, archaeologists, artists, linguists, cultural practitioners, and researchers, whose job it was to dig deeply into the cultures of the Pacific Islands and help the storytellers accurately represent the cultures of Oceana.

In developing the character of Moana, filmmakers John Musker and Ron Clements made clear to story artists, writers, and animators, (as reported at the WIA event) that Moana’s mythic structure would be based on the Hero’s Journey. At the event this got my interest, as I felt that there was clearly a structure more in line with the Queen’s Path at work. In the Hero’s Journey, the hero begins with a call to be part of a quest. The hero often ignores or refuses the call, forcing fate to push him into the quest. Think about Luke Skywalker and how after hearing Princess Leia’s message he refuses the call from Obi Wan Kenobi. When he returns to his Aunt and Uncle’s home it has been burned to the ground, everyone dead. There is no reason for Luke to stay on Tatooine at that point. His destiny lies beyond the life of a simple farmer. He tried to ignore the call, and fate pushed him to his destiny.

Moana’s story has elements of the hero’s journey, and yet she is guided much more by The Queen’s Path, she struggles whether or not she should be an adventurer, or a dutiful daughter. Moana must choose between the life her father has planned for her, or the life of a hero, who answers the call to save her people. This is still a Queen’s Path journey, as Moana is faced with one version of her life as a dutiful MISOR, or as an isolated MIPE. Indeed, when we meet Moana, she is already the designated heir to the throne; she will be the next chief of her people, a Queen’s Path is implied.

The Hero’s Journey appears to be playing out much more for Maui, the demi-God who helps Moana in her quest. He refuses the call to adventure with her, he is not given a choice, and eventually learns that even without his magical hook he is still “Maui, shape-shifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men and women.” That is the hero’s journey in a nutshell.

Meanwhile, Moana must decide if she is going to follow one of two paths before her: to be a rebellious MIPE, venturing out on her own to gain power and wisdom; or if she will be a dutiful MISOR, and take her place among the chiefs, never leaving the island, and leading her people through the turbulent times ahead. If you’ve seen the film, you know that she chooses the MIPE route, and ventures into the ocean, encouraged by her grandmother, but defying her father. She leaves on a quest to find Maui, and return the heart of the Goddess Te Fiti to stop the plague that has reached her island, the result of Te Fiti not having her replenishing, life-giving heart.

The mystical heart of Te Fiti was stolen by Maui, as a gift for humanity, but it was lost in the Ocean (along with Maui’s magical fish hook). As a child, the Ocean, a character in the film, gives the heart to Moana. Her grandmother sees this and knows that Moana has been chosen by the Ocean for a unique mission. All characters whether heroes or queens will have a mission before them. It is how the mission is framed that will determine which mythic structure will guide the journey.

Moana finds Maui and ultimately convinces him (to his great annoyance) to accompany her on her quest to restore the heart of Te Fiti. They take a mild detour to fetch Maui’s magical hook from the lair of Tamatoa, the demon crab. They are then on their way to restore the heart of Te Fiti. After the duo leave Tamatoa’s lair, the story is a beautiful union of the Hero’s Journey and the Queen’s Path. Maui struggles to regain his magical powers, part of the Hero’s Journey of having to overcome internal obstacles, usually because of ego or hubris. Moana on the Queen’s Path is doubling down on her MIPE lane, learning the skills required to sail, and so master the seas for her quest.

Moana and Maui both share the experience of the reflective dark night of the soul. Maui flies away, abandoning Moana. Moana faces the Ocean, and asks the mystical symbol of the unconscious to choose someone else, throwing the heart of Te Fiti back into the depths. Moana’s grandmother returns to her in spirit form offering to help Moana return to her people if she wants. In literally looking at herself, as reflected in the waters of the ocean, Moana realizes that she does not have to give up, but can renew her commitment to the Queen’s Path. This is the empowering choice that all female protagonists must face, to trust their embodiment, and transcend the expectations that are given to them, or go back and give in to the expectations, and limitations of others.

Moana choses embodiment. She sails to the island to restore the heart of Te Fiti, knowing she will have to battle the demon Te Ka. Maui returns as well, to offer help to Moana, having realized in his own hero’s journey, that he is the demi-god Maui regardless of whether or not he has his magical fishhook. The two then set on a course to restore the heart of Te Fiti, battling Te Ka in the process.

As Moana arrives at Te Fiti’s island, she looks back at Te Ka and realizes that Te Fiti and Te Ka are the same Goddess. This is the ultimate symbol of the Queen’s Path, Moana unites the dutiful MISOR part of her, and her brave MIPE self in order to restore the heart to Te Ka, thereby uniting the ultimate symbol of the Divided Woman, an angry Goddess bent on destruction without the presence of her heart.

In this act of restoring the heart of Te Fiti, Moana also heals her own divide. She is ready to return to her people as their leader, knowing she has saved them from destruction by uniting the two halves of the Divided Woman, both herself and the Goddess of creation. Te Fiti and Moana even resemble each other physically, with their almond eyes and flowing curls.

Moana’s path clearly follows the Path of the Queen, even while Maui’s Hero’s Journey plays out for him through the film. Even while Maui is acting out his Hero’s Journey, he becomes the magical teacher for Moana. The two stories balance together beautifully, as they have many similarities. The difference for female characters is that they always have to face expectations placed on them by culture. They have to find their own safety in that equation. If the would-be Queen is to be successful in her quest she will have to face her other half, and ultimately overcome the divide. This is done through some act of physical transcendence. For Moana it is when she dives into the depths of the water to reclaim the heart, and sails on her own to Te Fiti to restore the heart to the Goddess.

Moana is the first FULL Queen put forward by the Disney Studios (though there is an argument to be made for Pocahontas). There have been several characters who demonstrated the divide as described in the Queen’s Path, though they overcome some obstacles, and reunite the divide, no one before Moana is so fully embodied of the Queen’s Path, and the transcendent nature of the Queen as Moana. The female protagonist is separated into one of her two possible halves. She then overcomes several obstacles in the narrative plot, eventually she must face her other half in order to succeed. Once she does, she also has a transcendent experience, overcoming the divide with sovereignty, not merely reconciling and accepting fate.

When the movie was over at the Disney studio I had tears streaming down my face. I saw that the Queen’s Path was right there on the screen, and would be seen by millions of little girls around the world. It made me so happy to think that little kids would be able to see a female character who was clear about her life and mission, and who was able to reconcile the Queen’s Path, and attain sovereignty over herself. That is the ultimate goal of the Queen’s Path, that an individual woman understands what it means to be sovereign over herself. As Albert Pike said, “The Sovereignty of one’s self over one’s self is called Liberty.” It is that sovereignty that is at the end of the Queen’s Path, and why it is so important for women and men to integrate and embody that journey whole-heartedly.