In Craft Talk, I break down the elements of movies, TV shows, and, of course, books, to highlight what is working and what doesn’t, and how they can be applied to our writing. These are not reviews. Rather, they are careful looks at what can be learned from a lot of different mediums.
I decided to start this series because so often we feel like we don’t have time to work on our craft. I’d like to show you, however, that by looking more closely at the media you spend time with every day you can constantly glean lessons that will benefit your own stories.
I’m beginning with the Disney movie Moana, to really drive home the fact that there are things to be learned from even the simplest of stories. Also, this movie is very popular in my house right now. This process really can be integrated into your life, no matter where you get your stories.
One caveat: looking critically at the stories around you can help you learn lessons that apply to your own writing, but this will never make up for the time you spend in front of the keyboard or the page. The things you learn must eventually be applied to your own work. It’s a good way to flex story-telling muscles, and is most effective in tandem with a writing schedule, however light.
Moana and Disney Princesses
Moana is not a movie in a vacuum. It exists alongside a universe of Disney princess films. The title character might be the daughter of a chief, destined to become a chief herself, but one character even goes out of his way to make the point that she is a part of this canon.
“I am not a Princess!” Moana says.
Maui says, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
While Moana carves out her own territory in the Disney princess world (there is no prince to be seen! No love interest in sight!), she’s also definitely defined by this. I think the weakest parts of the movie are those that cleave to the traditions of this formula, like when Moana pulls one of those ditzy “Oh, hey, I hear them calling, so I – gotta go!” moves to get out of an awkward situation. This never happens again, and feels extraordinarily out of character on subsequent viewings.
Other things in Moana probably have greater resonance because this is a princess movie. See the previously mentioned lack of love interest.
The lesson here is, if you’ve created some really strong characters, maybe let them be who they are, even if it means going into unfamiliar territory. You probably have that option way more than Disney does, so go for it.
If you haven’t seen Moana, and you don’t plan to, then I’ll summarize here. Warning: plot spoilers ahead!
Moana opens with Gramma Tala telling how Te Fiti brought life to the world, until her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui. Immediately, the demon Te Ka rose up, and struck down Maui, after which both demigod and the Heart of Te Fiti vanished. Gramma Tala warns that Te Ka’s darkness will consume the world, but a hero will rise up to return Te Fiti’s heart, saving them all.
Guess what happens next?
Moana (a toddler, at this point) goes down by the ocean waves. She saves an adorable baby sea turtle from some frigatebirds (yes, a toddler saving a baby sea turtle is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in a Disney film) and then the ocean gives Moana the Heart of Te-Fiti. She is the chosen one!
Then her dad scoops her up and carries her back to her responsibilities on the island, because little Moana is also the future leader of Motonui. Moana drops the heart in the water.
Moana grows up, and in spite of her yearning to be on the ocean, she commits herself to her leadership role. Until, one day all the crops on the island start to shrivel and die, and the fish leave the waters around the island. After a disastrous attempt to sail out past the reef, Moana follows her grandmother to a cavern where the boats her people once used to explore the ocean are hidden. Then, Moana’s grandmother gives her the Heart of Te Fiti, and tells her that the ocean chose her as the hero who would convince Maui to return the Heart.
Moana’s father doesn’t think this is such a great idea (in fact he sets off to burn the boats), but Gramma Tala falls ill. She urges Moana to go, find Maui, so that he can return the Heart. Moana takes one of the hidden boats, and sails off.
With help from the ocean, Moana gets to Maui’s island, but it turns out Maui is a self-absorbed jerk. He tries to steal Moana’s boat, and insists that he isn’t interested in anything but getting back the magic fishhook that allows him to shape-shift. With some sass and some help from the ocean, Moana convinces him that if he wants to be a hero again, he has to help her.
There’s some peril with personified coconuts, a demon-crab called Tamatoa, and Maui’s backstory, but they retrieve the hook, and set off to face Te Ka. It turns out that Te Ka is pretty tough, and they aren’t able to get past. Worse, Maui’s magical fishhook is cracked in the process.
Convinced he has no power without the hook, Maui abandons the quest, leaving Moana to confront the question of why the ocean would choose her. She returns the stone to the ocean, telling it to find a different hero. Then, Gramma Tala shows up in spirit form and gives Moana a pep talk so good that she decides to retrieve the Heart and complete the quest alone.
So, Moana takes on Te Ka, and of course Maui returns to help at just the right time. When Moana climbs the island that was once Te Fiti, she finds that most of the land is gone. She realizes that Te Ka and Te Fiti are one and the same, the ocean parts to let the terrifying lava monster approach Moana, and she returns the Heart.
Te Fiti returns to her benevolent form, life is restored to the islands, Maui flies off a happy demigod, and Moana returns home to her island where she teaches her people how to be wayfinders again. Everyone is happy, the end.
What Moana Does Well
One of the places where Moana really shines is in the rhythm of the plot. The inciting incident, the thing that launches the story, happens right away, when Moana receives the Heart of Te Fiti from the ocean. Through Gramma Tala’s brief story, the viewer already knows the significance of the green stone.
Then, each time Moana moves forward to the ultimate confrontation with Te Ka, there’s a setback, and the stakes get a little higher. At first Moana just feels an urge to travel the oceans, which she sacrifices to serve her people. But then the crops start to fail and the fish leave. Still, Moana’s father forbids her to leave. When she sails out on her own, she doesn’t know what she’s doing and her boat capsizes, almost drowning her. Gramma Tala gives her the Heart, and Moana’s father threatens to burn the boats. Moana gets past the reef, but is struck by a storm. She finds Maui, but he’s a self-involved jerk. She gets him on the boat, but they’re attacked by Kakamora. They retrieve Maui’s hook, but he’s unable to transform. They get to Te Ka, but can’t get past to Te Fiti. Finally Moana gets past Te Ka, only to discover Te Fiti is gone.
Just before the final confrontation with Te Ka is the lowest point of the movie, when Moana, full of self-doubt and alone, gives the Heart of Te Fiti back to the ocean and decides to return home. With counsel from Gramma Tala, she remembers all she has learned on her journey so far, and reaches a turning point that leads her to the climax of the story: a young woman with no powers daring to face down a fearsome demon, filled with the knowledge of who her ancestors were, and who she is, now. A knowledge that allows her to see Te Ka is actually Te Fiti, robbed of her heart. The contrast of these two moments, the lowest and the highest, make both much more effective.
Then, pretty quickly, the movie wraps up and everyone is happy again. Because the rises and falls of the story already worked out all the snags and conflicts, this denouement runs smoothly, and makes sense.
This chart from The Hoffman Agency demonstrates effectively the rising and falling plot that Moana follows. The movie definitely has its own spirit, and it feels fresh, but it follows the same arc as Romeo and Juliet. It’s a classic way of storytelling that really does work.
Emphasizing the strength of this story arc, the characters’ personal journeys rise and fall in tandem. Both Moana and Maui have a personal failing to overcome, and only by reaching their lowest points are they able to see with clarity. Upon seeing the truth about what it is they lack and overcoming it, they’re able to face Te Ka and save the world.
For Moana, her struggle is in answering the question “Who am I?”. Throughout the film, she grapples with two very different desires. She wants to be a good daughter to her parents, and a good leader to her people, but that clashes with her yearning to explore the ocean. She believes that it is impossible that she do both. And even though she believes that getting the Heart to Te Fiti is going to save her people, still she struggles. Is she a wayfinder, or is she a leader? Why did the ocean choose her for this journey, a young woman without any sailing experience? Her doubts keep plaguing her, rising and falling as she succeeds and fails.
At the moment of crisis, when she is alone and has returned Te Fiti’s Heart to the ocean, she confronts how her desire to prove herself as a wayfinder led to the breaking of Maui’s hook. Gramma Tala’s spirit tells her that she can return home, if that’s what she wants. Yet Moana hesitates, and her grandmother tells her (in song form, of course) to listen to the small voice inside her. Even though she’d heard this before, it is only now that the lesson takes hold, and she realizes, “the call isn’t out there, it’s inside me.” She sees herself as the type of leader her ancestors were, both chief and wayfinder.
This knowledge of who she is allows her to see Te Ka as the bereft form of Te Fiti. At the final crisis, she reminds Te Fiti, “this is not who you are/ you know who you are”. Moana returns the Heart, also restoring the goddess’s sense of self.
Maui’s personal struggle is also a quest for self-identity, although in his case, he attaches all of his self-worth to his fish hook, and the shape-shifting powers he gets from it. Until Moana showed up, Maui languished on an island, unable to leave. The moment Moana arrives, his singular goal is to get back that fish hook. To do this, he will abandon Moana on the island, ignore the quest to return the Heart of Te Fiti, and use Moana as bait for the crab monster Tamatoa.
Moana tries to convince him that the hook never made him great, that it was Maui’s own actions that did that. He seems to believe, but when his hook is damaged in the fight with Te Ka, he won’t dare try facing the demon again. He says, “without my hook, I am nothing.” He abandons Moana and the quest to save the precious object that he views as all his self-worth.
Maui’s awakening doesn’t happen on-screen, so we can only assume what happens. But we can guess that as he flies away, he feels guilty for abandoning Moana, and sees that leaving her behind isn’t the act of the hero he desperately wants to be. He returns to stand between Te Ka and Moana so she can get to the island and return the stone. During the fight, his hook is completely shattered, yet still he is willing to face Te Ka.
After the battle, he is able to say, “Hook, no hook, I’m Maui.”
The moment of Te Ka’s transformation has great impact because of the turning point Moana and Maui faced immediately before. Their personal journeys mirrored and intersected the larger quest, making this climax both grand and personal. The viewer has followed the characters through their struggles, and so it is easier to feel the importance of this moment when Te Fiti returns to her former self. When she realizes who she is.
If you’ve read Harry Potter, you can probably think pretty quickly of objects in the books that were important. The Maurader’s Map, the Invisibilty Cloak, Harry’s broom. In 1984, it’s the eyes of Big Brother, a coral paperweight, Julia’s red sash.
In Moana, some of the important symbols are a spiral, a fishhook, and a manta ray. Each of these elements show up over and over again, building a sense of familiarity, highlighting things that are important in the story.
The spiral shape is a powerful symbol of Moana’s quest. The Heart of Te Fiti is a green stone bearing a spiral, and the same spiral is on Te Fiti’s chest. The locket where Gramma Tala stores the Heart has a spiral shape. The sail on the boat Moana takes onto the ocean bears the same shape. The island where Te Fiti once rested forms a spiral. And it is when Moana sees the spiral on Te Ka’s chest that she realizes where Te Fiti has gone. This symbol is a marker for important points in Moana’s quest, because it is an echo of the quest’s goal. The spiral originated with Te Fiti, and to Te Fiti it must return.
There is another, smaller spiral that beautifully bookends the movie. After toddler Moana saves the baby turtle, the ocean gifts her with a conch shell, which has that swirled shape. At the end of the movie, after Moana has completed her quest, the ocean gifts her with another conch.
The fishhook is a symbol of Maui’s power, but also of his burdens. Maui marks the days on the rocks of the island where he’s marooned in the shape of his lost hook, where it can haunt him as much as it encourages him. Even though he and Moana retrieve the hook from Tamatoa, Maui must separate his own identity and his trials from the power of the hook before he can transform again. He must come to view it as a tool, rather than as essential to his identity.
The manta ray, however, symbolizes Gramma Tala. Moana’s grandmother has one tattooed on her back, and even dances in the water with them. After Gramma Tala dies, she appears as a glowing manta ray, to guide Moana. Like the gentle ray, Gramma Tala does not try to push Moana (except when she urges her to start the quest, already, which she apologizes for later) but guides her to answers.
Moana uses these symbols effectively throughout the movie, telling viewers where to look and how things fit together.
This wraps up the discussion of Moana’s strengths. Next time, I’ll look at what I think the movie could do better, and the practicalities of applying these elements to your own writing. Thanks so much for following along, and I hope to see you back for Part 2! If you have any questions or additional thoughts, please let me know in the comments.