We finally took Madison to see Moana over the break and it affected me in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. It’s one of those movies I can’t judge objectively. I can’t say it if it was good or great (probably someplace in between) because it made me too emotional. The lens through which I view movies (or any story, really) has been shaped by all of my life experiences, but most significantly by two in particular: becoming an English major and becoming a father. I generally don’t care for standard Disney movies because they don’t feature characters I can relate to. Moana, however, gave me two.
Moana is the inversion of at least two different Disney icons. She is bound to the land but longs for the sea; she’s the reverse-Ariel, even if Moana doesn’t have a specific reason for her longing in the way Ariel does. Moana is also bound to the familial duty of leadership and governance by nature of her royal birth, but unlike Simba, she actually can wait to be
king chief. What Moana has in common with both characters, however, is a complex relationship with her father, one that is predicated on responsibility. All three characters struggle with the weight of royal birth and expectations and demands that do not necessarily align with their own wants and desires. Ariel is too self-centered to care; Simba was naive at first, then fled from it later; but Moana actively tries her best to fulfill her father’s wishes and role as chief-in-waiting.
I was too young to appreciate this dynamic when I first watched The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, but this theme screamed out to me while watching Moana. “No one goes beyond the reef,” Moana’s father shouts. He spends his life grooming her for the role of chief and he succeeds, but only to a point. There’s something inside of Moana that he can’t control because she herself can’t control it. She doesn’t even know what it is. A few nights ago, I chanced upon a blog post from 2012. Madison was 4 and we were best friends. It seems like a different life – farther away than college, even. Mad and I argue so much now. “She has too much of you in her,” Lynnette said when I shared my lamentations with her. “She hates being tied down, told what to do.” So when it became apparent that Moana’s relationship with her father was also my relationship with Madison, it messed me up. Madison really does try. But she doesn’t know what she’s becoming, what she’s going to be, either. She would never articulate growing up like this, but I do, and the uncertainty rattles me.
One of my favorite characters in the movie is Moana’s grandmother (if you know me at all, then it should only take you less than 3 seconds to figure out who my absolute favorite character is). The movie is a textbook take on the fundamental “Who Am I?” theme. It seeps into so much of the movie’s dialogue – her father telling Moana who she is, who she’s supposed to be, what she has to do; her grandmother revealing the origins of her people; Moana herself reciting “I am Moana” over and over throughout the movie; and Maui’s belief that his identity is tied to the power of his hook. Moreover, the film hits something Frozen tried for, but never quite pinned down: losing track of who you are and slowly becoming something else over time because of fear or comfort or convenience or all of the above. I can relate to that.
Moana never has cause to leave her island comfort zone because it has all she needs – until it doesn’t. It’s only then that she’s forced to move beyond the reef. Her grandmother (in sly, subtle opposition to her own son) plays the classic role of the mentor, giving Moana what she needs to begin her journey before dying to ensure the hero faces the quest on his or her own (before returning in ghost-form for one last measure of assistance, a la Obi Wan and Dumbledore). It is the standard epic hero’s quest (complete with a trip to hell), but it is also the standard journey of self-discovery: she has to leave her past to find her future (which in part, is her people’s past). I am 36 and have made both of these odysseys already. They weren’t a whole bunch of fun but I am still here, and stronger, wiser for both. But still. I have been dreading the day when Madison begins to move away from me, even though I know it is necessary for her growth. Soon, she will start her own journey and I will have to accept my slow relegation over time into an observer. I assume that someday, Lynnette and I will send Madison off from our island home into a bigger, more mysterious part of the world, and every day, we’ll simply hope that our princess is alright, that she’s doing it right.