I decided to rewatch Moana the other night. It was really nice to know that I could sprawl out on the couch and sing along and not be concerned whether or not I was invading any one else’s space or if they were tired to me rewatching Moana (my mother flat out refused to let me watch it while she was in the apartment). It’s one of my favorite movies for a lot of reasons; not the least of which is Moana coming to the realization that she has a much more active part in the story than just delivering Maui to Te Fiti. Instead, she ends up being the one to return the heart.
This change between the unsuccessful attempt and the successful one has made me realize several things on repeat viewings.
Maui CAN’T be the one to return the heart of Te Fiti because, while he does learn over the course of the movie, he is also the one who caused the damage and trauma in the first place. It’s not usually the abuser or attacker who is ever going to help the victim, especially since the movie explicitly lays out the damaged caused by Maui (though this is much easier to spot on the second viewing). In Tala’s (Moana’s grandmother’s) story which opens the movie she calls Maui “a demi-god of the wind and sea”, something he will be called throughout the movie. It’s one of his defining features, something he and others always call back to. But very shortly after Tala gives him this name, she goes on to talk about the arrival of Te Kā (who is revealed at the end of the movie to be some alternative form of Te Fiti) who Tala names “a demon of earth and fire”. Te Kā (and thus Te Fiti) becomes the very antithesis of Maui the one who assaulted and traumatized her. Te Kā is created out of the violence down to her by Maui and becomes a being that can fight him. And that’s all they end up doing: Maui is constantly fighting Te Kā and never pauses to consider that a non-confrontational approach is best.
Like I said before, Maui does learn throughout the movie, in many ways he comes to respect Moana’s agency and strength. In fact, that lesson is how he becomes most useful in the final scene with Te Kā. After having lost his fishhook but still feeling the need to defend Moana, Maui challenges Te Kā directly with a haka dance. HOWEVER, just before Te Kā strikes Moana holds up the heart of Te Fiti and asks the ocean to let Te Kā come to her. The choice Maui makes to NOT TRY AND INTERFERE FURTHER is the best choice that he can make. He has come to trust Moana enough that he steps away from an active roll and lets Moana face Te Kā despite the “demon” charging Moana like she is a threat.
Maui cannot successfully return the heart of Te Fiti because he caused the damage; he cannot just decide whether or not things are fixed. He can certainly try to make amends: working to return the heart, supporting Moana in her attempts to do so, stepping back and shutting up when necessary and directly apologizing and admitting he was wrong to do what he had done. Again, it is Te Fiti’s choice whether or not she forgives Maui and by her unimpressed look when Maui attempts to avoid a direct apology, she is aware of it. She replaces his fishhook for several reasons: a sign of forgiveness to him, a sign that she is letting go of the trauma for herself, and likely, also that Maui has a tool through which he can continue to improve and make the world a better place. Maui does say that he thinks Te Fiti liked it when he pulled islands out of the sea so that Moana’s people could travel to and habitate them: Maui would be able to help fix the damage he caused a thousand years previous by using his fishhook again – to punish him further would cause further harm so Te Fiti takes the high road.
And what I found most interesting in this last rewatch is that Mona did not expect Te Fiti to do such a thing. Hear me out.
Moana successfully returns the heart of Te Fiti because she takes a step back and recognizes Te Fiti in the form of Te Kā. She recognizes that trauma (the removal of Te Fiti’s heart, her power, her trust) HURTS people, CHANGES them. She sees who Te Kā used to be and understands almost immediately that Te Kā is not the enemy here but the victim. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie Moana walks to meet Te Kā head-on, singing softly: “I have crossed the horizon to find you/ I know your name/ They have stolen the heart from inside you/ But this does not define you/ This is not who you are/ You know who you are”.
This song is meaningful in a lot of really interesting ways. The very first two lines connect Moana to Te Fiti/Te Kā both in the journey she’s made but also in the recognition that Moana can see Te Fiti despite the change in her, despite the damage that’s been caused. And I just love how softly Moana sings the entire thing. Maui tends to shout, to be big and loud but Moana is small and quiet and willing to listen as much as she’s willing to talk.
Going further, Moana also admits that humanity had some roll to play in the trauma done to Te Fiti, she says “They” and Maui has insisted from the get-go that he stole the heart for humans (who never accepted him no matter what he gave them). Moana can see the trial of trauma and abuse that’s created more abusers, even if those abusers can’t necessarily recognize it themselves. But, in reigning Maui in when speaking with Te Fiti later, Moana is still recognizing that the experiences may EXPLAIN Maui’s toxic actions but they do not EXCUSE them. She says something similar to Te Kā when she reminds her “This is not who you are” but then steps back and allows Te Kā her own agency “You know who you are”. That line could easily have been “I know who you are” just like “I know your name” but Moana can’t say that. She can recognize the relationship between them: she can recognize the womanhood in Te Kā despite her anger and hurt, but she cannot FIX that anger and hurt.
Nor does she expect returning the heart will magically make things better. She meets Te Kā face to face, a loving moment mirroring the other female relationships in Moana’s life (with her mother and grandmother) and returns the heart. But when Te Kā transforms back into Te Fiti Moana sounds surprised and in awe. In recognizing Te Kā as part of Te Fiti Moana actually seems to recognize that the trauma Te Fiti/Te Kā faced is part of them, a valid part that isn’t gone just because the heart is returned. An apology and restitution does not make the initial experience vanish or any less valid. If Te Kā remained Te Kā even with her heart, that was something Moana was prepared to accept (because she had accepted Te Kā as she was and allowed her the agency to express herself in spite of the drama and how ugly expressing it looked).
It is Te Fiti’s strength of spirit in accepting Te Kā as part of her but not letting the anger and hurt rule her when she has another choice that really speaks in this moment. Te Fiti makes the choice to work on her healing, even when Moana recognizes that healing fully isn’t possible. She makes the choice to forgive Maui.
I don’t know…all of this just kind of hit me the other night making me excited about a movie I love. You guys get the jumbled result. What can I say except you’re welcome?