story behind the story: Moana

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Disney clearly did their research for this film. Some of it involved the Oceanic Trust of advisors…

Some of it involved Polynesian cast and crew like Dwayne Johnson, newcomer Hawaiian Auili’i Cravalho, and Polynesian fusion music group Te Vaka (appropriately, it means the Canoe, since canoes play a huge role in this story).

Some of it involved the (ohhhhhhh, the agonyyyyy) terrible chore of visiting Polynesian islands and talking to people, hearing their stories, seeing their lives up close.

Some of it must have involved documentaries and books. I’ve read and watched a few, favorites being Nomads of the Wind, some short documentaries about the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the Hokule’a, and the other wakas that were built in her wake.

One standout book is Hawaiki Rising, by Sam, Low, about the early years of the PVS and Hokule’a.

Her journey from some folks “seeing the island in their minds” to the reality of an ancient design wa’a kaulua (double hulled ocean going canoe) sailing round the world, and passing through the Chesapeake Bay this summer, was an epic Hero Journey of its own.

Some things in Disney’s film resonated with things in that excellent book (readable by anyone over, say, fourth grade).

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Spoiler alerts, waaaaah waaaaaah waaaaahh!

A line in Te Vaka’s “We Know the Way” goes, “we see the island in our minds”, a reference to a conversation between navigation teacher Mau Piailug and student Nainoa Thompson. “Can you see the island?” says the Yoda of the Sea. Of course not, it’s thousands of miles away. Nainoa stays silent, thinks, and finally answers, “I can see it in my mind.” The true answer. “If you can’t see it, you gonna be lost.”

I have no idea if Mau’s name is related at all to Maui…

Some animation in that part of the film (running behind We Know The Way) has the navigator holding up his hand to measure where the stars are. There are two illustrations, and a photo cover, of this exact navigation technique in Hawaiki Rising. We see Moana doing this later in the film too (with a little adjustment from Maui).


Shipwrecks: In 1978, Hokule’a set out from Hawaii to Tahiti, this time with some lessons learned from earlier voyages and obstacles. This time, she would sail without an escort boat, she couldn’t afford one.  The crew, chosen for skills and compatibility, included Eddie Aikau, a lifeguard and champion surfer who was credited with over a thousand life saves on one of Hawaii’s most dangerous beaches. On march 16, they loaded the boat, and to some, she seemed a bit overloaded. A double hulled voyaging “canoe”, aka, big butt kicking catamaran, is a very stable boat, and fast… but loading properly is a deadly important thing on any boat. They left, in the dark, in a gale. And then the starboard hull began to sink. The port hull rose out of the water and the huge double hulled wa’a flipped in slow motion. In the dark, in heavy wind and waves, the crew clung to the overturned, yet still floating, Hokule’a. Even in tropical waters, you will eventually go hypothermic. And they were drifting out of well traveled waters into the unknown. They had flares, which they used. They had a waterproof emergency radio known to WWII pilots as a Gibson Girl for its curvaceous shape. It was a transmitter, not a receiver, so they had no idea if their distress call was heard. As the sun rose, small baitfish could be seen under the overturned boat. Small fish attract bigger fish which attract bigger fish… eventually to the top of the food chain, sharks. Finally Eddie grabs the boat’s surfboard and heads out toward a distant mountain peak almost lost in the wind-driven spume… 18 miles. I’ve paddled a kayak that far, in warm, calm water, in a dry boat, with a paddle. A man on a surfboard in high winds and huge waves with only hands and feet… impossible. But he went to try to save his crewmates.

He was never seen again.

Eventually, a pilot who had taken off late, and was lower than normal, and looked out the window at just the right time, through an unlikely break in the clouds saw a flare from Hokule’a, and the crew, and the boat, were rescued.

There was a lot of discussion as to whether they should just stop voyaging and put the boat in a museum. Nainoa Thompson says, in the book, “The idea of navigating or voyaging was gone. When we lost Eddie, the feeling of shame was so strong, how could we go on?”

Eddie’s dream though, was to “pull Tahiti from the sea.” Like Maui with his magic hook, raising islands from the sea. That legend, that imagery comes from the view a sailor has as they approach an island, it rises out of the sea, slowly, until it is there before you solid and real. Nainoa’s parents helped him think through it all, think about the vision he wanted for the future, and about his role as a leader. “We’re going to Tahiti.” he finally said.

In Moana, we learn that the reason her father does not let anyone go beyond the reef is that he and a friend encountered danger, lost their boat and his friend died.

It is the opposite decision made by Nainoa Thompson. If he had chosen differently, the Hokule’a would not be sailing today, Mau Piailug’s navigation skills, and those of all Polynesia, would be lost, and the existing fleet of other wa’as, wakas and vakas would not exist.

It’s a moment in the film that resonates; it frames how huge the decision and journey of Moana is.

When her own boat wrecks (and somehow survives!) I think of Hokule’a, still sailing, and of all the intrepid sailors who set out to arrive, or never to, at new lands in the Pacific.

Scorpio: In Hawaiki Rising, this constellation becomes Eddie’s constellation. It’s also Maui’s hook. In Moana, we see her navigating toward “the hook” to find Maui.

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We know who we are: In the song We Know the Way, there are the lines “we name every star, we know where we are, we know who we are…” Hokule’a emerged in the Second Hawaiian Rennaisance of the 70s. She was greeted with vast enthusiasm wherever she appeared, a symbol of the fantastic technology that allowed the Polynesians to settle the largest “nation on earth”. For hundreds of years, colonizers from the west had repressed Polynesian culture, leaving people with a disconnect to their own ancestors and land. Moana’s finding of the hidden fleet, her realization of “we were voyagers…WE WERE VOYAGERS!!!” is one of the key moments of the film. Her rediscovery of this ancient skill not only saves her people, but connects them to their roots, to who they truly are.

Roots: there is a word in Hawaiian, ‘aumakua. It is the ancestral spirits, a sort of family god, deified ancestor, often manifesting as a particular animal. They often intervene to protect their descendants. In Moana, Gramma Tala dances with the rays, has a ray tattoo, and says “I’m gonna come back as one of these.” I knew from the trailers that we’d have a fabulous manta manifestation at a critical point in the tale (actually, several).Now you know what it’s called. It’s quite gorgeous how Disney did it, with glowing blue bioluminescence. I’ve rowed one Viking longship on the Potomac stirring up green magic with each oar stroke. I’ve walked the beach of Assateague Island watching waves break green, and seeing each footprint glow like faerie dust. I’ve touched the water in the back bay and watched it explode with magic. On Hokule’a, two long feathered lei hulu fly from the spars, they honor the ancestors who had sailed the same route. The spirits of the old navigators dancing above, ka holoholo. Later in that voyage, Holule’a drifted in becalmed waters, attracting tiny fish that flitted about under her hulls. At night, they stirred up bioluminescence, a sparkling display of eerie green light that made a shape that stretched from bow to stern. In that shape, Sam Ka’ai sees a mo’o, a lizard (or think of it as dragon), the lizard’s backbone conjuring the lei of bones, the geneology of his ancestors stretching back in time to the beginning. In that moment, Sam felt it was a blessing, the voyage was pono, in harmony.

That necklace: The ‘aumakua bless Moana’s mission; the navigator who we see in “We Know the Way” returns with the whole voyaging fleet at a critical moment when she makes a critical decision. He nods to her, and touches the shell locket he’s wearing.


If you paid attention in the trailers for this song, the navigator passes this necklace on to his student…


and down the line because the next person we see wearing it is…

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and this is significantly passed on to…

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Nice work Disney!



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