A Guide to Disney’s Moana: Themes and Historical Accuracy


My family and I just had the great pleasure of watching Disney’s Moana for the first time this past weekend (And about 10 times since then!). My daughter is absolutely in love with it and she isn’t even 2 yet! Just as important- I am in love with it too!


These are some of the themes I took away from it as an adult and as a mother.

1. Where There is a Will, There is a Way- and you usually must make your own way 😉

As an adult, so many times during the movie this struck a nerve with me and gave me a sense of empowerment, a reminder that if I want something to happen, I have to make it happen. Relying on someone else to do it for you, or even at times just to help along the way, isn’t always a reality.

Moana demands Maui’s help numerous times, at the advice of her late grandmother and seeks the support of her father to no avail. She is turned away repeatedly.

Of course, this is an idea we are all familiar with while #adulting, but for many of us, it’s a well-needed reminder with a lot of inspiration.

2. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

I am a huuuuge proponent of this theory and although this may seem like a contradiction of #1, it seems to work hand-in-hand throughout the movie.

Moana needs Maui’s expertise to teach her about the sea and the world outside of her mortal being in order to successfully restore the heart of Te Fiti. Of the same token, Maui is rescued by Moana in the Realm of Monsters (Lalotai) and ultimately is responsible for guiding him to restoring his sense of place and perspective in an ever-changing world that he has been absent from for 1,000 years!

3. Woman Warrior

This was the kind of “Disney princess” movie I would want my daughter to idolize. (Although, Moana does state numerous times throughout the movie that she is “the chief’s daughter”- not a princess!) And I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy the Disney princesses and the roles they play, however, many of them are very gender script.

Moana breaks the mold with her ambition to be a voyager, to explore a dangerous unknown, and risking herself to save her people. Her femininity and slightly awkward teen age is still evident, making her character even more admirable.

4. Predetermined Destiny from Birth

This would be an interesting topic to discuss with your own children, as well as your students. It isn’t typical for us, in the United States, to be born into such roles- we seem to embrace the “American Dream” and teach our children that they can be whomever they wish to be.

Moana is born into the role as future leader of her people and seems to embrace that status. However, she is simply struggling with how to go about it while simultaneously following her instincts that don’t fit neatly into the ideals of the chief (see #5).

Do we have expectations and sometimes show disappointment when our children don’t choose the paths we think they have great potential for? Can it be an area of contention within our families? Absolutely! The destiny that Moana is born into is quite different, I’m sure most of you will agree after seeing the movie.

5. Predetermined Destiny v. Innate Desire

How do you force yourself to proudly fulfill your family’s legacy, yet still satisfy your own desires without completely disappointing an entire village?

Moana is constantly drawn to the water’s edge (although by the sea’s design…) and this is in direct opposition to their tribe’s only law: No one goes beyond the reef! Yet Moana sees no other solution to stop the darkness that is spreading quickly throughout their island.

She will be their next leader, how will she know if she’s jeopardizing their safety or securing their future?


This theme also reappears during the short film featured on the DVD titled, “Innerworkings”. The director of this film, Leo Matsuda, gives a quick insight to the film in relation to his upbringing. He has thick cultural ties to both Japan and Brazil. The Japanese side always calculating away in his mind, while the Brazilian side tugging at his heart-strings- a constant battle, much like Moana’s.

6. Polynesian Culture and History

Pacific Islands 🌴

This was an area that peeked my curiosity. I have traveled to Hawaii and throughout the entire movie, I was convinced that it was all heavily based and set in the Hawaiian Islands. I wondered about the accuracy of the legends in relation to the Hawaiian culture and decided to look more closely at it and I am glad I did- I learned so much from just one article, “How the Story of Moana and Maui Holds up Against Cultural Truths” by Doug Herman, at the Smithsonian.com. Thank you, thank you, for writing this article and shedding some light onto the cultural and historical misconceptions of the film! I was truly enlightened!

The integration of Polynesian dance, language, and clothing made this such an enjoyable film. With a unique look at traditional tattoo art used to depict achievements, milestones and story-telling. For me, it afforded me the opportunity to appreciate and admire the culture and heritage of the Polynesian people with new eyes.

7. The Preservation (or destruction) of Mother Nature

Te Fiti fits our description of Mother Nature and Te Ka is the demon that results when her power falls into the wrong hands. Sounds like 2017 and the future of the 3rd rock from the sun!

8. Mythology

As the movie begins, Moana’s grandmother is telling the tale of Te Fiti’s stolen heart with great stage dramatics to a group of the village’s tiniest listeners. We hear about demi-gods, demons of fire and earth and MONSTERS!



As the story unfolds we learn their stories that serve as explanations for the sudden darkness that is changing their beautiful islands.

9. A Grandmother’s Bond

Moana’s grandmother is very influential in Moana’s childhood and connects with her in a way no one in the village is able to.

She leads her through self-discovery and helps her uncover the ancient history of her people.

They are forever connected in spirit as she encourages Moana to find Maui and guides her on her journey as the next leader of Motunui.

She reassures her that, “There is no place you could go where I won’t be with you.” ❤️ And she keeps that promise and reappears when her granddaughter needs her most.

10. Human Interconnection with Nature

This idea is woven throughout the movie with Maui as a shapeshifter, the way the sea provides for and protects Moana, Te Fiti’s human form that transforms into earth, and Moana’s grandmother reincarnated into the symbol she chose to adorn herself with- the stingray.



Themes are life lessons, and even better when we can learn them through some of our favorite, charismatic characters! Truly one of the best Disney movies and I plan on enjoying for years with my family!


I would like to mention that there were 2 small parts that I thought viewers could have done without. I guess this has been rated a PG movie (peril, scary images and brief thematic elements), not G and perhaps I should take that with a grain of salt, but sometimes I just cannot understand why certain scenes have to be included for young, impressionable audiences.

  • When Moana is shouting angrily at Maui and begins to call him a, “Son of a…”. Why? Is there no other phrase that could be substituted there? That is a pretty offensive phrase for young people to be exposed to, even if they don’t fully understand it.
  • Maui pees in the water, turning the current warm, while Moana has her hand in the water to check it. Again, why?

A small bone of contention to be had in exchange for some high value themes. 😉

Thank you Walt Disney Company!