Join Eliora, Rei, and a special guest (!!) as they dive deep into Disney’s Moana. Have you ever thought about the theme of Identity in the film? What about how the music ties into it?
Rei: Hey guys! Journsplit is back with another episode! Today, we’re talking about Moana!
Eliora: This episode is a bit special as we have a guest appearance: Rulin from Choir! She’ll chime in now and then to tell us more about the music in the movie. This episode was written and produced with input from Choir members.
R: The film tells the story of Moana, the strong-willed daughter of the chief of a Polynesian village, who is chosen by the ocean to return the lost heart of the goddess Te Fiti. When a food shortage strikes her island, Moana sets sail in search of Maui, a legendary demigod, who assists her in returning the heart and saving her people.
E: The movie starts with Moana’s grandmother telling a story to a group of children about Te Fiti, whose heart was stolen by Maui.
R: PLEASE TAKE NOTE: the heart is like, a green glowing amulet. Te Fiti did NOT fall in love with Maui.
E: Okay, okay. Anyway, baby Moana is notably not scared of the tales of monsters and demons lurking in the seas, unlike the other children.
R: In fact, if you pay attention, Moana’s grandmother basically gives a summary of everything that happens later on, including the events that push Moana to leave the island in search of the heart of Te Fiti. More on Te Fiti and what became of her later!
E: We stan an oracle grandma!!
R: Anyway, after pandemonium breaks out, as is bound to happen when you have ten children in the same room, Moana sneaks away and toddles down to the shore, where she spots a pretty seashell that has washed up on the sand. She is about to pick it up when she sees that a baby turtle is being harassed by predatory birds.
E: There’s this really adorable moment where she flaps her arm in frustration because the seashell is drifting away in the shallows, but she chooses to leave it in order to help the turtle.
R: Can we talk about how CUTE all of baby Moana’s expressions and actions and exclamations are!?!?!?
E: Yeah!! And they’re so realistic, too! Anyway, when the turtle has successfully reached the ocean, a sparkling wave ripples through the water. The water appears to have witnessed Moana’s purity and selflessness and rewards her by retreating to reveal more seashells.
R: Moana follows the trail of shells, delightedly picking them up. The ocean plays with her, mimicking her movements and ‘styling’ her hair. It eventually brings her the lost heart of Te Fiti.
E: As these things happen, we hear the Innocent Warrior theme for the first time. Hey Rulin, what are the key features of the theme?
Choir (Rulin): Hi!! The music starts out as the sound of the waves retreating. Then, low, consistent humming enters. We hear a melody sung by a feminine voice, which is then joined by other voices after the first verse to form a distant harmony.
The musical progression uses 9th chords, which, in Western music, are used to create the soft ambience, gentle vibes and resonance characteristic of background music. And we can hear that the melody has a major tonality, creating a light atmosphere and showing Moana’s joy and ease. Furthermore, there is no instrumental accompaniment, making the scene feel more natural and intimate.
E: Thanks, Rulin!! That’s really cool. The lyrics of this melody are in Samoan, a Polynesian language, and it is reminiscent of a mother singing a lullaby to a child. Here, however, there are multiple voices. In a way, they are the voices of the sea.
R: In fact, there is a line that directly translates to ‘There is a task for you, my dearest one.’ The usage of this endearment further cements the maternal or familial connection between Moana and the disembodied voices, and therefore between Moana and the sea.
E: This sea of voices (ehehe look what we did there) represents not only the vastness of the sea but also Moana’s ancestors – those who came before her, calling to her and giving her a task.
R: Said task, of course, is to restore the heart of Te Fiti.
E: …which she drops in the sea, and is then picked up by her grandmother.
R: Her father comes to bring her back to the village, and the next song, Where You Are, begins.
E: It quickly introduces the rising action of the story – throughout the song, we see Moana as she grows up and is repeatedly led away from the water by her parents. As a young child, she is stubborn in her love for the sea, but as she matures, she begins to accept that she must suppress that side of herself, and in the words of her parents ‘find happiness where you are’.
R: More on this conflict later. During and after the song we get this incredible sense of community from the entire village singing, dancing and working together. Moana is, at first, set apart: she doesn’t dance with the rest of the village, and although she participates in arts and crafts with everyone, she ends up producing works related to the sea, which is definitely not what her parents want.
E: When Moana manages to sneak away from her parents, she joins her grandmother dancing by the sea. Her grandmother tells Moana that she feels a connection with the sea as well, and ‘The village may think I’m crazy//Or say that I drift too far//but once you know what you like//Well, there you are’.
R: There is a timeskip here, showing Moana much older, with more natural movements, still dancing with her grandmother after all the years, which shows how her love for the sea has not waned.
E: However, later on, ‘So here I’ll stay//My home, my people beside me’ plays as Moana dances in sync with other women in the village, a metaphor for her deciding, however temporarily, to conform to what is expected of her.
R: Even then, she finds herself drawn to the sea. In the last part of Where You Are, we see her look towards the shore, where her grandmother dances, but force herself to look away.
E: Her grandmother often just does her own thing by the sea; she is there if and when Moana decides to come back to the water – not forcing her to, but also Knowing that she Will come back.
R: And she does! Cue ‘How Far I’ll Go’, which is Moana’s ‘I Want’ song. She sings about her yearning to go to sea, and the conflict from earlier is still present, as seen in ‘I wish I could be the perfect daughter/But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try’.
E: It’s the Reflection of this movie. All that stuff about not being a perfect daughter. Moana does, however, resolve (again) to abandon her passion and stay on the island.
C: Hey! It’s me again. If you pay attention, there’s low-pitched chanting layered under Moana’s lines in the bit when she makes this decision: ‘I can lead with pride//I can make us strong//I’ll be satisfied if I play along//But the voice inside sings a different song//What is wrong with me?’.
E: Thanks, Rulin! This chanting, like the voices in Innocent Warrior, represents Moana’s ancestors. It appears whenever Moana does something that she thinks is the right thing to do by her ancestors.
R: That’s right! If you listen closely, you’ll even hear that the chanting drops away at ‘What is wrong with me’, and not, as you would expect, at the moment when she starts talking about ‘the voice inside’ that calls her to sea, which she thinks goes against her ancestors’ wishes. Foreshadowing, perhaps, that her desire to sail the sea and fulfilling her ancestors’ wishes are not so different after all?
E: Ooooh that is so cool. As the song goes on, Moana gives in to her desires and decides to try sailing. However, she’s totally untrained, and after the song ends, her boat capsizes, and she gets hurt.
R: And then she gives up on her dream of sailing once again. God, she wavers back and forth so many times it’s even confusing to us.
E: Lol yeah. But her grandmother is there, as always, to offer encouragement. She shows Moana a hidden cave that contains many boats. In that cave, Moana has a vision. It’s accompanied by the song We Know the Way, which starts out in Samoan and switches to English. Through this vision, we learn alongside Moana that her ancestors were actually voyagers, a fact that elates her and somewhat explains her connection to the sea.
R: It also means that although her wanting to go out to sea is, in a way, rebelling against her heritage because she isn’t fulfilling the role her family wants her to play, it is also a way to honour her ancestors and restore a part of her people’s identity.
E: It’s pretty cool how it turns out that she must save her people by going to sea! These two seemingly conflicting identities turn out to be one thing, and she doesn’t have to betray either one in her journey.
R: Later on, Moana, driven by her dying grandmother’s last words to her, finally sets sail to find Maui and properly starts her journey to return the heart of Te Fiti. Here, we hear a reprise of How Far I’ll Go.
C: I’m here to point out that the same low-pitched chanting as before appears at the very beginning of this song.
[Rulin pauses for the music to play]
C: It drops away as Moana starts singing, then comes back again when she sings ‘Every turn I take//Every trail I track//Is a choice I make//Now I can’t turn back//From the great unknown where I go alone//Where I long to be’ Notice that it drops off once again at ‘where I long to be’.
E: That’s right! That’s where Moana fully resolves to set sail.
R: Even though she sings ‘from the great unknown where I go alone’, her ancestors are kind of ‘with’ her in her journey; they support her decisions. Even her grandmother returns in the form of a stingray and follows her as she sails.
E: In fact, any time Moana does epic seafaring stuff there’s disembodied singing in the background, whether it’s part of the soundtrack, like the song Logo Te Pate (long-oh tey pa-tay), or not. We could say that these voices are the voices of her ancestors, encouraging her as she follows in their footsteps.
R: Perhaps the most obvious representation of Moana finding the balance between two identities is in the song ‘I am Moana’, which combines ‘Where You Are’ and ‘How Far I’ll Go’,
E: There is a part in the song where she talks about how her voyager ancestors call to her to fulfil her purpose. ‘I am the daughter of the village chief//We are descended from voyagers//Who found their way across the world//They call me’. This is implied to be the same call that has been calling her to the sea all along.
R: And this call is like, a tangible representation of her purpose. There’s an immense sense of purpose in this story, an overwhelming knowledge of what Moana needs to do, and that she was always meant to do it because it was passed down through generations of her people.
E: It induces such deep emotion because purpose is something a lot of people have difficulty finding. I cried, like, so much!!
R: In Moana’s journey, she loses and re-finds her purpose, and in doing so helps her people restore a lost part of their identity – voyaging. There’s this message that it’s okay to forget or choose not to pursue your passions for a while because you can always come back to them when you’re ready.
E: And Moana’s grandmother is the one who leads Moana to these realisations. She was the one who instructed Moana to go out to sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti, and she also comforts Moana, telling her that it’s ok if she wants to go home, but also reminding her that the same voice that called her to sea is still inside her, and if the voice tells her to go on, then she should.
R: So Moana does continue on in her journey, eventually reaching Te Fiti – or where Te Fiti should be, because, as it turns out, Te Fiti without her heart is Te Ka.
E: The scene where Moana returns the heart is an incredibly emotional, beautiful climax of the story.
R: The ocean has been preventing Te Ka from reaching Moana (because, you know, the whole lava monster thing) but Moana tells the ocean to let Te Ka come to her because she knows now that Te Ka was Te Fiti all along.
E: And so the ocean parts, in a much more dramatic and majestic way than the first time it parted for Moana. Te Ka scrambles desperately across the seafloor towards Moana, and they move towards each other in slow motion.
R: The Innocent Warrior theme from earlier returns, because Moana is finally carrying out the task the sea entrusted her with years ago! Rulin, thoughts?
C: Innocent Warrior definitely completes the story here! The music also starts with the sound of the water retreating, but it’s different from its first appearance. The masculine voices are lower, louder and sound more agitated, which reflects the strong emotion in this scene. They give way to a simple, two-note instrumental in the minor key, which represents the sadness and sympathy Moana feels for Te Ka. Then, multiple feminine voices come in, harmonising and singing the first verse of the original song. They alternate with Moana, who sings an entirely new melody.
E: Additionally, this time, the song ends with Moana alone, and the other voices drop away suddenly. It’s as if Moana’s ancestors are saying: “We’ll sing with you, and support you in your journey, but at the end of the day we’ll let you have your moment alone.”
R: Her ancestors may have been the ones who called to Moana and guided her through her journey, but Moana is the one who has to replace the heart of Te Fiti. The song echoes in the background as Moana reaches the final stop of her adventures, and Moana’s solo here represents her growth over the years.
C: The harmony in the background symbolises the weight of her people’s well-being and of completing the task assigned to her coming down onto her shoulders. And on top of that, the timbre of instruments such as the string accompaniment completes the image and brings out a more wholesome tone to the music.
R: From the lyrics’ meaning in Samoan and the callback to the first Innocent Warrior, we are reminded that even after stumbling through storms and howling winds, Moana’s heart is still as pure as it was when she was a child exploring on the sands.
E: Moana sings with the ensemble’s voices in the background, telling Te Ka she knows its true identity. As discussed earlier, the background vocals represent both the sea and Moana’s ancestors, and so it’s as if it’s not just Moana, but a whole host of her people alongside her, welcoming Te Fiti back!
R: After her adventure, Moana reunites with her family, and she and her people become voyagers again. As a reprise of We Know The Way plays, we see Moana wearing her grandmother’s necklace, practising the same navigation techniques as her ancestors; finally fulfilling the part of her identity that is intrinsically tied to the sea.
E: What a beautiful ending!!
R: Interestingly, the people of Polynesia did, in fact, stop voyaging for about a thousand years in real life. They resumed voyaging again two thousand years ago. Pretty cool how they linked the story to real life!
E: You’d think that after a thousand years, those boats Moana discovered would have decayed or something.
R: …And that’s where we’ll end for today!
R (voiceover): Look out for our next episode on A Series of Unfortunate Events!