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What Disney's 'Moana' Taught Me About Mental Illness

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There is no doubt that Disney’s “Moana” was a hit among people of all ages. Many people loved how the film featured an adventurous and independent female heroine, others enjoyed how it reflected cultures that are typically left out in Hollywood. Something that has struck me each time I watch “Moana” is the metaphor for mental illness it creates. This may not have been its original intention, but I was able to see important messages about mental illness reflected in parts of the film.

The relationship between Moana and Te Fiti is so beautiful and well done. After Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti, they are able to share an intimate moment of respect, love and thanks by gently touching nose to nose. Te Fiti represents so much more than the goddess of creation. She represents, in my eyes, the struggles of mental illness in a society that does not understand. We know from the movie that Te Fiti, a graceful, green goddess of life, becomes Te Ka, a demon of fire and destruction, once the heart is stolen from her by Maui the demigod. When Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti, she sings:

“I 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… who you truly are.”

This is definitely my favorite scene in the movie, not only because of how brave and perceptive Moana is as she discovers what no one else has and walks right up to Te Ka/Te Fiti to return the heart, but because of how significant her song is when thinking about mental illness. If I look at Te Fiti’s transformation in this way, I can assume Maui stealing the heart was an event that triggered Te Fiti, causing her to become Te Ka, an opposing representation of her as a goddess. She changes from a being of life and grace, to one of darkness and destruction. She is scary, she is a villain. Similarly, mental illness may seem very scary to the person experiencing it and to others watching from afar. I think this is something that many people can connect with when thinking about how their mental illness can turn them into someone they do not recognize and cannot control. No one thinks that Te Ka and Te Fiti could be one in the same, and they run from Te Ka instead of trying to help. There is so little awareness in our society about mental illness and how to help someone who is struggling. Oftentimes people do not believe them, distance themselves from that person and give them unhelpful advice that can make things worse.

Then, when Moana comes face to face with Te Ka, she sings her song, and it is such a powerful moment in the movie. Moana tells Te Ka she knows who she is. She knows something happened (“they have stolen the heart from inside you”) that caused this reaction, but tells her it is not her fault. She tells her “this does not define you.” I love this line because for me, it emphasizes that mental illness may be a part of me, but it does not define me. I am not my mental illness. She then tells Te Ka, “this is not who you are” and that she knows “who you truly are” and puts the heart inside her, turning her back into Te Fiti. That love and kindness from Moana helps to calm Te Ka down and bring her into a state where she can connect with Moana and heal from her triggering experience. This scene to me represents mental illness and identity in an incredibly meaningful way, and I believe if discussed in the right way, it can help adults have positive conversations with kids about mental illness.

While Moana’s relationship with Te Fiti is a major part of the mental illness metaphor I noticed, it is not the only one in the film. Moana’s grandmother has always tried to guide and support her, and stays with her even after she passes away. But what struck me as important was when Moana wants to give up on her journey to save the world, her grandmother says, “It’s not your fault. I never should have put so much on your shoulders. If you’re ready to go home, I will be with you.” This is another one of my favorite scenes of the movie. Moana’s grandmother has reappeared to offer her advice when she feels completely hopeless and defeated. Moana does end up going back to return the heart to Te Fiti, but I think her grandmother’s initial acceptance of Moana’s decision to quit is admirable as well. In this brief moment, we learn that sometimes it is OK to quit if something is too much for us to handle. The people we love will understand and will be there to support us if we fail. This is a lesson I do not think is taught very often, and I am glad it was part of this movie. Sometimes we cannot do everything put on our shoulders. Sometimes external factors interfere and make it impossible to achieve all of our goals. The movie goes further to tell us that while it is OK to give up sometimes, we are still stronger than we think we are. Moana wants to go home, but is able to find the courage and the strength inside of her to complete her journey by taking a different route with the support of her grandmother, her ancestors and, eventually, Maui. Those support systems are essential in working through our own mental health journeys, and I appreciate the theme of community and family that flows throughout the movie.

One more character, while not saying much, really spoke to me as a metaphor for mental illness and disability — Heihei the chicken. Heihei is depicted as a silly character who causes more ruckus than anything else. One of the villagers says Heihei “seems to lack the basic intelligence required for pretty much anything.” Moana responds by saying “sometimes our strengths lie beneath the surface.” She does not seem to have much faith in him even while saying this, but by the end of the movie, he proves she was right. He saves the heart of Te Fiti from falling off of Moana’s boat and into the deep ocean, allowing Moana to return it. Without this act of bravery, their world would have been doomed. I think this small choice to make Heihei a hero by the end of the film helps us see even if our illnesses or disabilities prevent us from doing everyday tasks, it does not mean we are worthless. Sometimes society makes us feel this way, but it is important to remember we are capable of so much and we have people by our sides to help us along the way.

Disney has been making a lot of progress lately in its films. Themes of mental health, independent female protagonists and positive relationships between female characters appear in both “Frozen” and “Moana,” while movies like “Zootopia” reflect upon racism and mental health in today’s society. By featuring these important messages and metaphors, Disney is able to help raise awareness and generate conversations about topics that are normally avoided. I look forward to seeing what Disney will create next, and hope to see more diverse voices and topics represented in future films.

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Photo via “Moana” Facebook page.

Originally published: May 3, 2017
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