This article contains spoilers.
After facing monsters, surviving storms, and learning to navigate the seas, Moana, far from her home, is told by the demigod Maui how the ocean connects every living thing in the world. Here, in western culture, we tend to view oceans as vast chasms that separate continents over great distances, but Polynesian culture sees it very differently. Water is a source of life, of livelihood; every living thing needs water to survive, and every land mass touches water on all sides. Not only that, but water is fluid – ever moving, ever changing. On maps we divide our oceans into four somewhat arbitrary different bodies, but the truth is that it’s all the same water. It’s all, as they say, connected.
But that’s not what the people of Moana’s village believe. Under the leadership of Moana’s father, Chief Waialiki, the village of Motunui has prospered in its isolation. Everything they could possibly need is right there on the island or in the shallow waters that surround it. They have fish, they have coconuts, they have chickens and pigs; what more could they want? Going beyond the reef into the larger ocean is just inviting trouble. But for Moana, the sea has always called to her, and as a plague threatens the resources that have allowed Motunui to be self-sufficient, she is forced to rediscover her people’s legacy as voyagers and set out into the wider world to save her home.
After decades of Polynesian culture being appropriated by white people for everything from theme park shows to LEGO toys, it’s refreshing to see Disney throw the weight of its media empire into a blockbuster animated film that celebrates actual Polynesian culture with the support and influence of people who are actually Polynesian. And yet, almost ironically, there’s an aspect of Polynesian culture, this movie argues, that maybe white people should get in on. Moana’s story uses Polynesian culture to craft a desperate plea for globalism, and in light of recent events, it’s one that is sorely needed.