The following contains spoilers for Moana (which you should definitely see), The Lion King (which you should have already seen), and a serious analysis of both these family films which you might find silly (in which case, you should read this).
The Lion King is a Disney animated masterpiece. This is not an opinion. This is an irrefutable fact. Just like Earth being round and Channing Tatum being a mythical creature from a world unknown.
Although we regard Disney classics as being timeless, we can’t prevent them from ageing. Certain ‘everyday’ attitudes of those times are often revealed to be outdated today. Naturally, these tend to be reflected in film, whether it’s the hilarious idea that everyone can fall madly in love with someone they just met (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) or the unsettling sight of family-friendly racism in the form of cartoon crows (Dumbo).
With Disney currently refreshing their back catalogue of animated hits, from Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book to the Sleeping Beauty alternative Maleficent, these tales are also taking different shapes to reflect modern values.
Disney’s latest animated adventure, Moana, moves in a way that succeeds The Lion King, taking familiar plot mechanics and modifying them for the better. I’m not suggesting that it’s some super secret remake of The Lion King (that’s already happening) but both films’ themes on ancestry, identity, leadership and environmental respect make for a remarkable point of difference on how our attitudes have possibly changed over the last two-and-a-half decades.
At the beginning of both films, Moana and Simba are next in line to lead their people, but the way they are expected to lead is very different. The lions at Pride Rock are royalty, considered superior to the rest of the animals who bow at their presence. After all, everything the light touches is theirs and they get to eat all the animals because hakuna matata that’s the circle of life. So Simba must take the throne and mightily roar above everyone else to let them know who’s king.
The chief of Motunui, however, acts just like the rest of the tribe. Chief Tui does not sit on a throne above his people and Moana isn’t expected to either. Their chieftain role only asks two things of them: make the best decisions for their village and wear a dope hat while doing it. The land is not theirs; it is a place that provides for them and is – literally – its own being.
As the leaders of their people, both Simba and Moana are called to save their land. Simba’s task is to take Scar down when his uncle’s rule results in the waterhole drying up. Scar’s a dick, but he didn’t MAKE the rain stop – it’s clear that nature is put off balance when he assumes the role of king. It’s only when the ‘rightful ruler’ Simba lays the smackdown and takes the crown that the rain returns the land to its luscious state.
Moana’s task is different. The tradition of Motunui, as preached by her father, is that no one leaves the island. However, in order to save the island, Moana has no choice but to journey across the ocean like she always wanted. She breaks that tradition and takes on what her great ancestors were: voyagers. By doing so, she pulled the ultimate chieftain move and not only saved her people but also the entire world.
Compare that to Simba who, when forced to take matters into his own hands after his father’s death, went to hang out with Timone and Pumba while Pride Rock went to shit. It’s only when his dead father forms in the sky years later that he gets his ass back to the throne. Cloud Mufasa doesn’t exactly put the blunt life lesson in a loving, supportive manner either. “You have forgotten who you are,” he says in a pretty vague and commanding way “and so you have forgotten me.”
It’s the ultimate guilt-trip from beyond the grave. Granted, Simba WAS being very unproductive in his own tropical paradise, but given he left because his uncle lied to him and that – oh yeah – HE WITNESSED HIS FATHER DIE when he was a kid, a little compassion could have been nice. But now I’m just nitpicking.
Moana is greeted by a similar otherworldly presence in the form of Gramma Tala. But Gramma isn’t one to tell her granddaughter straight-up what she should do with her life. Rather, she wants Moana to listen to what’s in her own heart. “Is there something you want to tell me?” Moana asks. “Is there something you want to hear?” Gramma replies.
Before she passed, Gramma Tala encouraged Moana to believe in herself. She reappears from the ocean grave when Moana is at her most vulnerable to give the same message, helping the young heroine eliminate her self-doubt and carry on. It’s a detailed message lovingly delivered that didn’t make Moana run across the field yelling at the sky “Wait— hold on— LOVE ME!!!”
These scenes also show our leads looking at their reflections in the water. You know who Simba sees? Mufasa. You know who Moana sees? Moana. Then, just to slam the point home, she sings a song that ends with “I AM MOANAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
Perhaps the most relevant point of difference, though, is each film’s solution to environmental stability. Yes, I heard your eyes roll when you read the words “environmental stability” so let’s just call it “making sure nature doesn’t lose its shit.” As I stated earlier, Simba only needed to go back the throne – as it has always been – in order to restore the kingdom and to make sure nature doesn’t lose its shit. How exactly did Scar’s absence make the rain turn on again? It’s not important. Don’t think about it. Just make things like they were and it’ll all be fine and nature won’t lose its shit. Make Pride Rock Great Again!
If Moana had done what her father wanted – staying put on the island as chief-in-training – the land would have only gotten worse and then nature would have lost its shit. She knew this, so she actively went out in search of the problem and a solution. She found Maui, who took the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti for his own greedy desires. The goddess became Te Kā, the violent backlash of one demigod’s greed. By restoring the heart, Moana and Maui redeemed this abuse of nature and saved the human race. Not a shit was lost that day.
In the time where we can’t escape talk about global warming, it’s only natural that Moana would reflect urgent environmental attitudes.