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Humanity defines the tale of the heroic spirit

Rating: PG; Grade: A-


When we first see Moana (Auli’l Cravalho), the titular heroine of Disney’s new animated feature, she is all-eyes; they are close to popping out of her head, ablaze with merriment and wonder at thought of the tall tale told to her (and her obviously frightened young cohorts) by her grandfather about the adventures of the great demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a valiant warrior, who also happens to be a bit of a cavalier trickster. Maui challenges the spirits of nature, recklessly steals important artifacts to bolster his reputation, and enjoys out-sized celebrations that only a god-like figure could survive (one intimately connected to his decidedly more human urges). In those early moments, we are meant to see that Moana is a child, in awe of the child-like tendencies of an all-powerful being with no concern for consequences.

However, as Moana grows up though, maturing into the princess of a tribe of seafaring folk, she settles into the role of a proud woman-warrior, still inspired by a fearless sense of adventure but tempered with awareness and an innate sense of responsibility. The creative team behind “Moana” – featuring Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams sharing story and directing duties – wisely play up her growing wisdom in contrast to the devil-may-care attitude of Maui, crafting a solid moral lesson plan for younger audiences.

Apparently, we are in the midst of a cycle when such teachable moments seem to be trending. The Marvel comic book universe is currently unveiling a similar theme in a couple of its titles. They made news with the decision to recast Thor as a female character, doing so by deeming that the long-standing superhero – who was the actual son of the Norse celestial kingdom Odin – was now unworthy of wielding the magic hammer Mjölnir, which granted Thor control over the elements. In the comics and the new cinematic renderings of these stories over the years, much has been made of the efforts of strong and brave-hearted characters to lift Mjölnir.

Being worthy, however that might be defined, has been the deciding factor, and now a new series has started, exploring the journey of Odinson  as he attempts to prove himself deserving of the honor to bear the great weapon again. He does so, in a diminished state, which forces him to realize and overcome his limitations. Nobody said earning the right to be a god was supposed to be easy.

Something similar occurs in “Moana.” When it appears that her people’s current island is threatened, Moana, heeding clues from her grandfather’s story, takes off on her own, with the intention of finding Maui and righting the wrong he caused during that fabled tale, when he stole a sacred rock, upsetting a crucial balance of power. At the onset, it appears that Moana’s impetuousness will be her undoing. She has no idea how to harness her navigational talents, but fortunately finds Maui, who teaches her a trick or two. Problems arise though because he is a seemingly unrepentant trickster, interested only in his own gain and fame.

Yet, Maui comes to realize that his fall from grace, and possible redemption, involves thinking of others. In Moana, he gets the perfect role model, a plucky human with her eyes constantly on a prize bigger than herself, which increases her worthiness.

Casting Johnson as the fallen demi-god is another stroke of genius, because he strikes the perfect balance between cockiness and the dawning humility that washes over Maui along the way. It should also be noted that the great tricksters of myth and legend, all exploited weakness in their prey, but also exhibited enormous charm. That charm and charisma, while generally twisted for personal gain, always stand at the ready to be tools for great good.

What both “Moana” and the new “Thor” comics understand is that the gods and heroes of myth were never a truly omnipotent and unfeeling pantheon, far removed from their human subjects. No, those figures were forever striving to prove their right to command vast power over the elements and life and death. “Moana” grabs ahold of these big ideas and squeezes them down, shaping them into a relatable and engaging narrative.