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There's More Beyond the Coconut: Complacency and Stagnation on Motonui

by Kristy Sakano

To Moana’s village, the island of Motonui is paradise. Food, safety, warmth, and family are abundant, but stagnation is also apparent. Moana, the protagionist of the 2016 Disney film Moana, dreams of pushing beyond the island boundaries, but social norms and the fear of the unknown prevents her from pursuing her desires. But when their food source is threatened by an incurable disease, Moana takes it upon herself to become the hero of her island, and by doing so, defines herself as the provider of food and light for Motonui.

Prior to her departure, we find the island community entrenched in complacency; with groves of coconuts and schools of fish available on the near side of the reef, the villagers don’t even bother to explore beyond it. At the 10 minute mark, the village chief sings, “Consider the coconut! Consider its tree! We use each part of the coconut, it’s all we need. We make our nets from the fibers, the water is sweet inside. We use the leaves to make fires, we cook up the meat inside.” The analogy of the multi-purpose coconut is synonymous to Motonui’s fulfilling all needs for the villagers. The coconut, quite literally, ties the villagers’ identity and existence to the island, as they are fully dependent on the natural resources.

Moana: Moana’s mother encourages Moana to stay on Motonui.
Moana’s mother encourages Moana to stay on Motonui.

Under the idyllic surface, the complacency of village life leads to stagnation. Exploration and outsiders are shunned, boats are docked and stored away, and the village chief rebukes all who question life outside the reef. The growth that feeds development, curiosity, and independence has been stifled in exchange for security and safety. But the darkness that plagues other islands has spread to Motonui, and the villagers suffer because of their stagnation. Food sources that were available for centuries have been depleted; fish stocks all around the village drop rapidly. In pursuit of the cure, Moana has heralded her presence in the film as a provider of sustenance, and chooses to leave the island.

With the encouragement of her grandmother and the approval of her mother, Moana sets out to forge a new path for her self-identity. Coincidentally, both of these females’ roles are tied to food preparation, since women in Motonui tasked with preparing meals. In one pivotal moment, Moana’s mother tearfully bids her farewell with a wrapped sack of fruits to sustain her on her trip. The memento from Motonui is not a trinket, but the supplier of life: food. By bringing the fruits of Motonui on her trip, Moana has repopulated the Motonuian identity across the Polynesian islands. The approval of Moana’s mother is not only contingent on her daughter’s survival, but also Moana’s identity with Motonui. Thus, Moana’s departure allows progress to reign over stagnation on Motonui.


Moana. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Perf. Auli’I Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016. Netflix. 26 February 2018.


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