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Story Beats in the Songs: The Lyrics of Disney’s Moana

By on March 3, 2017 in About the Beats, Tools
Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho

Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho

Directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker
Co-directed by: Don Hall and Chris Williams
Screenplay by: Jared Bush
Story by: Ron Clements & John Musker and Chris Williams & Don Hall and Pamela Ribon and Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell
Genre: Golden Fleece
Original Songs by: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i

From the Oscars® to the Annie Awards, from the Critics’ Choice Awards to the Golden Globes, Disney’s Moana has been nominated for more than a dozen honors, and it’s not surprising. Not only is the story’s titular character a strong, independent female protagonist, but it also features a powerful soundtrack. Great music is a hallmark of Disney films, but the songs of Moana stand out for a different reason. Within their rich Polynesian sound, the lyrics masterfully reflect the beats, telling the story through song.

Moana with her father, Chief Tui, voiced by Temuera Morrison

Moana’s father Chief Tui, voiced by Temuera Morrison, and her mother Sina, voiced by Nicole Scherzinger

For instance, the opening song incorporates the Theme Stated as well as key elements of the Set-Up. Moana’s father, the village Chief Tui, tells her:

Moana, it’s time you knew
The village of Motunui is all you need

However, as a toddler, Moana responds that she wants to see what is beyond their island. Her father continues:

Don’t walk away
Moana stay on the ground now
Our people will need a chief and
There you are
There comes a day
When you’re gonna look around
And realize happiness is
Where you are…
The island gives us all we need!

Young Moana replies:

And no one leaves…?

Again, her father reiterates the necessity of staying in her home:

That’s right, we stay
We’re safe and we’re well provided
And when we look to the future
There you are
You’ll be okay
In time, you’ll learn, just as I did
You must find happiness right
Where you are

Gramma Tala, voiced by Rachel House

Gramma Tala, voiced by Rachel House

Later, her grandmother adds her own dissenting opinion, singing:

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

You may hear a voice inside
And if the voice starts to whisper
To follow the farthest star
Moana that voice inside is who you are

In these words and their accompanying verses, much is revealed. Not only are we introduced to the key characters, the setting, and their way of life, we also get a glimpse of the things that need fixing in Moana’s life. Even as a young child, she yearns to go beyond the island and explore, but is dissuaded by her father and the other villagers. To them, nature supplies everything the village needs; there is no reason to leave.

The Theme Stated makes its appearance in these lyrics in several ways. Dealing with the concept of identity, the thematic premise is referenced by both her father and her grandmother, but in different ways. A good theme will be debated throughout the story, and this is clearly the case for Moana — she must struggle with who she is and who she will be; what is her destiny and her role in this world? Is it limited to the island, or is she bound for something grander? There is a glimpse of stasis=death here, as it is clear that Moana’s thesis world is stagnant and in need of change. She is not content to stay like all the other villagers are.

Maui, voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

That change comes with the Catalyst; something has gone wrong on the island, and the curse caused by Maui is now affecting them. According to legend, Maui had stolen the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, and Moana wants to find the solution off the island, sailing through the seas. During the Debate, she reveals her struggles and thoughts, singing:

I’ve been staring
At the edge of the water
Long as I can remember
Never really knowing why

I wish I could
Be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water
No matter how hard I try

If the wind in my sail on the sea
Stays behind me
One day I’ll know
If I go, there’s just no telling
How far I’ll go…

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’s wrong with me?

In these lyrics, we sense how Moana is torn as she reflects on the words of her father and grandmother, echoing the theme. She wants to explore her limits and discover who she is, but she feels like she should be responsible for the island. The conflict causes her to think something might be wrong with her.

Moana’s grandmother takes her to see a secret that has been kept from her, a cave filled with old seafaring ships used by her ancestors. As she listens to the voices of the past, they sing to her, offering a counterpoint to her doubts:

We are explorers, reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders in a
Never-ending chain
We know the way

With this new revelation, another thing that needs fixing is also brought to light. Moana’s culture is one that hands down stories orally (like the one about Maui), but not everything has been handed down as it should be. Moana realizes that her own story has yet to be written and added to those of her culture, and with this knowledge, her Debate has found its answer. At the moment her grandmother dies, Moana makes the clear Break into Two, passing into her antithesis world, guided by her grandmother’s spirit:

Now I can’t turn back
From the great unknown
Where I go alone
Where I long to be

See her light up the night in the sea
She calls me
And yes, I know
That I can go…

It isn’t long before Moana steps into this upside-down world, meeting the B Story character. In this case, it’s Maui, and he turns Moana’s perception of the world on its head. Living in the village had instilled in her that nature and the island provided everything the villagers needed to live, but she soon learns that her new demigod companion is the real reason for everything. Maui is headstrong, confident, and braggadocios, and his exchanges with Moana present the promise of the premise: what happens when an ordinary island girl meets a demigod? The B Story and the Fun and Games are reflected in Maui’s song where he boasts of his many contributions to humanity:

So what can I say except you’re welcome?
For the islands I pulled from the sea
There’s no need to pray, it’s okay, you’re welcome
Ha, I guess it’s just my way of being me!

Tamatoa, voiced by Jemaine Clement

Tamatoa, voiced by Jemaine Clement

Of course, their quest is far from simple. During the Bad Guys Close In beat, Maui and Moana attempt to retrieve the demigod’s magical fishhook from the giant crab Tamatoa. Besides being a literal enemy, Tamatoa brings out Moana’s inner Bad Guys of doubt and despair by calling her grandmother’s advice into question:

Did your granny say, “listen to your heart
Be who you are on the inside?”
I need three words to tear her argument apart
Your granny lied

Tamatoa doesn’t stop there, though. He attacks the all-powerful Maui by dredging up the demigod’s hurtful past, reminding him of his human parents that didn’t want him, tossing him into the ocean only to be rescued by the gods:

Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of these humans who made you feel wanted
You try to be tough
But your armor’s just not hard enough

Maui’s weak spot is revealed to Moana. He craves the love and acceptance of humans, seeking to give them everything they need, but deep down, he’s hurting. His pride is shattered as he’s revealed not to be as tough as he pretends to be. He is vulnerable.

Eventually, things become too difficult for Maui, and he leaves Moana in the All Is Lost beat. As Moana sorts through whether or not to turn back and give up, the spirit of her grandmother appears to her. Her grandmother’s words provide the guidance Moana needs in her Dark Night of the Soul, reminding her of the theme:

Sometimes the world seems against you
The journey can leave a scar
But scars can heal and reveal just
Where you are…

The people you love will change you
The things you have learned will guide you
And nothing on earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you

And when that voice starts to whisper
“Moana, you’ve come so far.
Moana, listen… Do you know who you are?”

Moana bridges her Dark Night of the Soul into the Break Into Three, making a decisive step into her synthesis world of Act Three:

I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more—
Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all it’s inside me
It’s like the tide, always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart, you remind me
That come what may; I know the way
I am Moana

Yet her journey through The Transformation Machine is not complete. During the Finale, Moana confronts her worst fear, the fire demon Te Ka. But Moana realizes Te Ka is, in fact, the corrupted version of the island goddess Te Fiti. Moana must finally come face to face with the theme, and she digs, deep down, speaking to the goddess:

I have crossed the horizon to find you
I know your name
They have stolen your heart
From inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
You know who you are

All stories are about transformation, and Moana’s is no different. Her journey — both the tangible and the spiritual — is complete. She has restored the heart of Te Fiti and brought new life to her island and its villagers. Most importantly, she has learned who she truly is. Her story is masterfully told through the lyrics and music, the beats seamlessly woven through the songs.

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Cory Milles

About the Author

About the Author: Cory Milles has been teaching writing for over a decade. In his spare time, he writes Young Adult novels that seek to capture the power of story to transform his readers. When he’s not writing, teaching, or listening to his collection of movie scores, he can usually be found reading more on the craft of writing. He is an editor of Save the Cat!® Goes to the Indies and the author of the Young Adult novels New Miller's Grove, Legacy, Paradox and Redemption and is featured in the book LOST Thought: Leading Thinkers Discuss LOST. .

There Are 2 Comments

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  1. Ian says:

    Great analysis Cory! Thanks for taking the time!!

  2. Virginia Shine says:

    Okay, now I want to watch it 🙂 Thank you for the analysis! I love animated films that tie the story in with song lyrics. Probably why I cry at most of them, the heart sings.

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