Film Theory: How Dark Is Disney’s Moana

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I think the reason Disney loves throwing their villains off a cliff, hurdling them over a waterfall, or even have them fall off a zeppelin while chasing down a rare breed of bird, is because these deaths are automatically implied without ever having to show the gruesome results. Having been in the family business for almost a century, Disney is no stranger to the handling of darker themes in their narratives. However, since Walt Disney Animation Studios reintroduced princess narratives through CGI with Tangled and Frozen, some would argue that the stories have become less and less traumatizing since the early days of Walt Disney’s work. After all, while Scar was torn to shreds in The Lion King, and Ursula was stabbed through the heart by the sharp end of a ship’s spear in The Little Mermaid, the closest we’ve gotten to childhood scarring was Mother Gothel aging rapidly in Tangled.  Now that Disney has released their latest heroine driven story in Moana, which has been receiving widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike, it might come as a bit of a relief to parents that the new vision of Disney has once again tackled the family friendly market without resorting to the death of an antagonist, much like they did with Frozen. And yet, with a bit of research, you just might uncover an even darker plot element within Moana that would make this otherwise gorgeous animated adventure contain one of Disney’s darkest moments yet.

WARNING: SPOILERS WILL BE DISCUSSED

If you haven’t watched Moana yet, stop reading right now. Go out and see it. It’s amazing, and I loved it, and you’ll love it too. Do yourself a favor and go see it immediately. If you’re still reading this, you’ve seen the film and know everything that happens. Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) teams up with the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore the goddess Te Fiti’s heart and break the curse that’s been killing plant life on all islands it reaches. During a brief moment together in their ocean voyages, Maui reveals that he was born to human parents who had abandoned him after taking one look at him, opting to dump him in the sea instead of raising him. The gods took pity on the baby, and gave him a magical fish-hook to become the demigod Maui. Ultimately, he would go on to become a hero to man through his exploits in pulling islands from the sea, and stretching the days by lassoing the sun.

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Doesn’t sound like anything too traumatizing, does it? I mean, apart from a baby being abandoned by his parents because they couldn’t stand to look at him, of course. However, those familiar with ancient folklore understand that there are two principles for how a mortal becomes a demigod in olden tales.

1. A demigod is a mortal who is the offspring of a god and a human being.

Okay, so Maui doesn’t fit into this category because he revealed to Moana that he was conceived by human parents, and wasn’t birthed into demigod status by having a god or goddess parent. So, it would be safe to assume that Maui would fit into whatever category number two is. However, it’s a category many of you Disney die-hards might not want to hear.

2. Or, a demigod can be a figure who has attained divine status after death.

Think about it for a second. Maui was found by the gods and given divine status after being abandoned at sea by his parents. If mortals can only become gods after death, then this doesn’t mean that Maui was saved from neglectful parents by the gods, he was resurrected by them. As a baby, Maui could have either drowned from being tossed into the ocean by his horrible parents, or they could have purposefully suffocated him beneath the waves. Sure, the film never explicitly says that Maui was drowned when he was tossed into the ocean, but what else could occur when a newborn infant is thrown like trash into the abyss?

What backs this theory up is the death of Gramma Tala (Rachel House) early on in the plot. After urging Moana to find Maui and save their island, she passes away surrounded by her family. Immediately after her demise, she is resurrected into her favorite creature, the manta ray, so she may swim within the oceans for all eternity. Resurrection is a major theme throughout the run of the film, whether it be that of Gramma Tala’s death and rebirth, or Moana trying to restore the heart of Te Fiti and reviving the plant life that has slowly died away. If Te Fiti can be reborn into the luscious, green goddess she once was, after spending many years as a vengeful lava creature, what’s to prevent Maui from having come back from death as well?

Take all this with a grain of salt mind you. Moana is an excellent Disney animated movie that many will enjoy, and I guarantee it won’t scar any of your kids. But it’s hard to argue against Disney’s love of killing off beloved family members, so what’s to stop them from killing off one of the protagonists before the film has even started? The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have had a scene where baby Quasimodo was about to be tossed into a well for his disfigurements, but Moana could indeed be the first Disney animated film to have a baby drowning be a key component to its plot.

​Donald Strohman is a Pennsylvania State University film graduate currently residing in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. Before being a part of The Young Folks team, he contributed to GameDeck and the satire website The Black Sheep. He also writes for the game journalism site GameSkinny. When he's not trying to fulfill his life long dream of becoming the "Hash Slinging Slasher", Donald enjoys watching movies, playing video games, and writing; sometimes all at once.