Note: I wrote this in 2017, which is why I’m discussing this as a “new” movie. 🙂
I really enjoyed the movie “Moana”, with its colorful characters and excellent songs. A few things were a little irritating, because I’m a curmudgeon and have been since birth, but overall it’s one of Disney’s better non-Pixar efforts (and they haven’t all been great!).
The story is compelling and emotional, with its myths-brought-to-life shenanigans, but even in the first 10 minutes it began to feel familiar. I found myself predicting events and plotlines, probably to my husband’s annoyance.
“The grandma knows a secret, and of course she’s eccentric and/or crazy.”
“I bet her father lost someone at sea and that’s why ‘NOBODY GOES BEYOND THE REEF’.”
“The grandma’s gonna die, and Moana will freak out and leave.”
“There’s gotta be a small animal sidekick – all these movies have one!”
“Moana and Maui are gonna have a falling out and go separate ways, then they’ll get back together before the final battle. That always happens.”
And sure enough, all that stuff happened…because I’ve seen this movie before. Only it wasn’t called “Moana” – it was called “The Lion King.”
For ages I’ve gotten a weird satisfaction from noticing trends and patterns in pop culture and advertising, even though the repetitiveness and lack of originality can get tiresome. This was no exception, and its blatant parallels with “The Lion King” made me want to dig into what’s going on.
At some point I began reading about The Hero’s Journey, which has emerged as a hugely popular (and profitable) template for today’s movies, especially Disney’s. As Wikipedia broadly puts it, The Hero’s Journey is “the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.” There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s something that tends to resonate with people on some universal level. George Lucas famously used it for “Star Wars”, for example, after reading about it in Joseph Campbell‘s writings. Naturally, once Hollywood caught on to this recipe for storytelling, screenwriters have used it as a template for zillions of movies over the past few decades…which is one reason why so many movies these days have a familiar, predictable feeling.
The Hero’s Journey can be fairly complicated, but various writers over the years have condensed it into a series of general stages. Once you get a feel for them, you start seeing it being used quite a lot. I’ve noticed it in many Disney & Pixar movies, though they’re hardly the only ones. “Moana” is the most obvious example I’ve seen in a while, so I thought it would be fun to compare it with “The Lion King” point-by-point, since that’s the movie it kept bringing to mind. It’s not a perfect comparison in every way, especially since these elements don’t appear in the exact same order in both movies, but you can see the similarities.
THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
- Moana: All Moana wants is to travel beyond the reef and explore the outside world, but noooooo. Her father scares her with stories of monsters and death out there, and basically bullies her into giving up her dreams and taking her intended role as the village Chief. Bummer.
- The Lion King: King Mufasa tells his son Simba that he’ll be king someday, whether he wants it or not. Simba isn’t impressed…he’d rather prove his toughness by checking out that creepy elephant graveyard.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
- Moana: Oh shit! The fish and island vegetation are dying and things are starting to suck. Even the coconuts are turning crappy – and that’s, like, all they eat.
- The Lion King: Oh shit! King Mufasa was just murdered by his jerkwad brother!
REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
- Moana: Her father says “No way!” when she says they need to forage beyond the reef, so she gives up the idea of ever leaving the island. Turns out he lost his friend to the sea when they were kids (I knew it!), so go figure. She ventures out to the reef anyway and almost gets killed. Whoops.
- The Lion King: Simba and Nala are told again and again to stay away from the elephant graveyard, but do they listen? They go there anyway and almost get killed by a trio of asshole hyenas, then promise never to go there again.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
- Moana: Hey look, it’s the crazy/eccentric grandma who conveniently happens to know allllll the secrets of the village’s past! She shows Moana that her ancestors were sea explorers, then tells her to get the hell off that island…and then she promptly croaks. The phrase “remember who/where/what you are” makes the first of many appearances.
- The Lion King: The crazy/eccentric monkey shaman Rafiki clearly suspects that Simba might be alive and starts to investigate.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
- Moana: Moana bursts into song, grabs one of her ancestors’ old boats, and speeds out beyond he reef. Her boat gets trashed in a storm and she finds herself stuck on a small island with the demigod Maui. Whoops.
- The Lion King: After watching his father die, Simba is tricked by Scar into thinking it’s his fault. He wigs out and flees across the desert.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
- Moana: She and Maui bicker and fight. A lot. But eventually they decide they need each others’ help. Together they defeat a few enemies like freaky pirate coconuts and a giant crab with an addiction to bling.
- The Lion King: Simba befriends a smartass meerkat and a farting warthog who teach him to eat bugs. Their philosophy is “hakuna matata”, which apparently is Swahili for “I don’t give two shits about anything but myself.” He grows up to be a lazy, ambivalent brat.
APPROACH. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
- Moana: They head out to sea in search of Maui’s magic fish-hook thing which will help them defeat the enemy..
- The Lion King: Simba’s childhood friend Nala finds him and tells him he needs to reclaim his throne from that pompous prat Scar. Simba says, “Oh hell no! That’s none of my business. But hey, you’re kinda hot now. Wanna roll around in the jungle?”
THE ORDEAL. Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
- Moana: Finally they’re ready to return the magic rock to where it belongs and defeat the evil darkness thing. Maui gets his ass beaten, quits the quest, and takes off feeling like a total loser. Moana gives up as well, feeling like a total loser. Like, such a bummer.
- The Lion King: Nala confronts Simba about his irresponsible hakuna matata-ness, revealing how guilty he feels about his dead father. He refuses to return home and save the day. Nala leaves instead, unimpressed.
THE REWARD. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
- Moana: Her crazy grandma’s ghost appears in the middle of the ocean and reminds her of her destiny and stuff. She says “Remember who you are!” for what must be the 12th time. Moana is probably tired of hearing that, so she…remembers who she is.
- The Lion King: The monkey shaman Rafiki finds Simba and, in a full-on Cher moment, whacks him on the head to snap him out of it. He then mystically reveals to Simba his destiny as King. “Remember who you are!” and whatnot.
THE ROAD BACK. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
- Moana: She takes the magic stone and decides to do everything her own damn self. You go, girl.
- The Lion King: Simba finally grows a pair and decides to go back home to kick some Scar ass.
THE RESURRECTION. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
- Moana: She attempts to return the magic stone despite all the danger, and Maui comes back to help. She returns the stone to the goddess, who is then restored to sanity and the darkness retreats.
- The Lion King: Simba beats the shit out of Scar and the hyenas, who in turn rip Scar to shreds.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
- Moana: She goes back home where everything is thriving again. She becomes Chief (again) and continues the island’s long line of Chiefs.
- The Lion King: Simba assumes his role as King and brings his kingdom back to its former glory. He and Nala get busy and produce a cub, continuing that Circle of Life thing.
Side note: I’ve seen several Disney & Pixar movies since this one which have the same easily recognizable pattern as described above, so we’re probably gonna keep seeing this formula being used forever. I can’t decide if it’s lazy storytelling or just a formula that truly appeals to people. Maybe a bit of both… That said, I get how tempting it must be to just recycle a successful formula, but come on — people also happen to enjoy storytelling that’s surprising and unpredictable. Don’t they…?