Maui needs to Maui

Dear Editor,

Re: ‘Moana’s reigns, ‘La La Land’ sings in limited release

Yes the title is correct; it’s not supposed to read “Maui Needs to [be] Maui” (be himself), as some may assume. I’ll explain later.

Based on the so-called hero’s journey model, and therefore according to movie and literature archetypes, the hero/protagonist is Moana, the mentor is Maui, Tala is the herald, Heihei is the trickster, the Kakamora (three coconuts) as threshold guardians, Tamatoa as the shapeshifter/threshold guardian, and Te Ka as the antagonist/villain/threshold guardian.

So far, most Polynesians who don’t seem to like Moana, the movie, are critical of - and repulsed by - Maui, and how he is depicted and portrayed as a Polynesian demigod, let alone a “Polynesian male” (quotes being used purposely). And so what’s their beef, you ask? Well, they say Maui is not buff, instead he’s beefy/bulky, obese, buffoonish and a blunderer. Baloney, some of them say. And their main outcry and wish is that “Maui needs to maui.”

Now let me digress, if not to address and express.

First of all, Maui (proper noun/name) is pronounced “Muh-wee” ( not “Mow- wee”) with a short /a/ in the Polynesian vowel pronunciation. The second “maui” (verb) is pronounced “mah-oo-ee”, (with a long /a/) which, in Samoan, means “shrink” or “deflate”. A receding tide, a deflated balloon and a shrinking lump or stomach all are said to “maui”, hence “Maui needs to maui” is, simply, “Maui needs to shrink”. Call it a semantic coincidence or a namesake blooper, yet the pair still has a nice ring to it with, hopefully, a profound and deep twist in the context of this review. Anyhow, let’s see if we can deflate the debate.

If I were to grant the Maui critics and disparagers some consolation in their opposition, it would have to be the disproportion and variance between the godly Maui of the myths versus the ungodly Maui of the movie - again, not necessarily in the sense or context of Maui’s physical size.

Traditionally, according to Polynesian myths, Maui is a god/demigod, or a “half-god”. He is quite versatile in his traditional roles. He is associated with fighting or stealing fire, snaring the sun, fishing up islands, conquering volcanoes, setting off earthquakes, etc. He is also associated with bird life, not migratory or sea birds, but a unique colorful bird into which he changes sometimes - as in the movie. Indeed, Maui changing into a bird, and other forms, therefore, is not a Disney creation/innovation. The transformation is original. Maui is similar to Thor, Hercules and other big screen “gods”. Physically, Maui is, more often than not, a young adult, strong, sculpted, handsome and talented, the ideal male archetype. This is the Maui many Polynesians want to see.

Although I too would love to see a similar portrayal, I’m convinced, however, that it’s by design by the film-makers that Maui is portrayed the way he is in the movie - notably for the sake of Moana, the character and the movie.

In the movie, Maui is a quasi omnipotent character. Besides being a mentor, he is easily a herald, shapeshifter, threshold guardian, and a trickster as well.

But Maui also plays perhaps a much more important and key, yet subtle, role. He is a foil to Moana. (In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character ~ Wikipedia) So Maui in Moana is NOT necessarily Maui the Polynesian demigod, in other words. His main role is to make Moana look good (pun intended).

If Maui in the movie is like Maui the demigod in the myths, then Moana will be a different movie. It will not be about Moana but about Maui. Remember that the movie name is “Moana” not “Maui”. It’s all about Moana. If Maui is to be portrayed as his true original self, then Moana will be dwarfed, marginalized and overshadowed. Maui will fight every battle and overcome all challenges for Moana. He’s a god, for heaven’s sake. As a result Moana will not be challenged and tested according to the hero’s journey blueprint. Moana will not be Moana. If you inflate Maui, you deflate Moana, in other words. Maui is the one that needs to maui (deflate/shrink).

Throughout the movie we don’t see Maui upstaging Moana. Moana has the upper hand, so to speak, even as a protege of Maui. And lest we forget, she’s the one, not Maui, who returns Te Fiti’s heart, although Maui is the one who steals it to begin with. As a true demigod, in an ideal storyline and script, Maui is supposed to and quite capable of returning the heart, but he doesn’t. Here, Maui is again maui and Moana magnified.

In line with the foil literary device, we have Maui the man versus Moana the woman. Maui the god versus Moana the mortal. Maui relying externally on his fishhook for strength and power, versus Moana as being inwardly courageous, resourceful and mostly “self taught”. Maui’s arrogance versus Moana’s confidence. The makers of the movie, I think, want us to identify more with Moana the mortal, not Maui. Men, or Polynesian men for that matter, should not try to identify with Maui either - physically or otherwise. He comes across as having a typical man’s ego, one that is occasionally deflated in he movie. He’s arrogant and condescending to Moana (therefore to women? ...hmm). Actually though he is a god, powerful and strong, Moana is definitely the stronger, persistent, vigilant, confident and more tenacious of the two.

When Maui descends to Tamatoa’s abode (Pulotu/Hades) to retrieve his fishhook, he thinks he can do it alone until he finds out that he needs Moana’s help. In fact he is surprised that Moana is even able to follow him into the underworld. I’m sure, for Maui, as they both return and surface back to the boat, seawater is easier to swallow than his pride. During much of the subsequent and final battle with Te Ka, Maui is conspicuously absent and even more dependent on his fishhook. Conversely, Moana fights Te Ka using her own skills, resourcefulness and wits. Again, Maui shrinks while Moana shines.

Moreover, the legendary Maui is a young stud and a heartthrob. Okay, stop! Hold that image. That’s the very image that most Polys want Maui to be. But that’s even more problematic too. Say that we put that same sexy and sculpted Maui right next to Moana. (I hope you know where I’m going with this.) And Bingo! We have Maui and Moana, a Polynesian Ken and Barbie. And so now we have a whole new story, a whole new movie and something that is anything BUT Moana. Disney doesn’t want that, and we don’t want that. 

This is Moana’s moment, Maui will have to wait for his.

All in all, I think Maui in the movie is more a distorted but inflated hologram than his reputed god/demigod self. If he is the latter, then at least one of his parents is a god (like Tagaloa, his father, in some versions of the myth), but according to the movie both his father and mother are mortals. And that makes him a mortal too, or just a wannabe god. Either way, Muhwee mahooee!

Maui needs to shrink? He actually does. In a profound and deep-as-the-moana sense. And so for those who do not like Maui as an obese guy, and want him to maui, physically, wait for “Maui: The Movie” which I’m sure Disney is/should be planning and in the mold of Hercules, Thor and others. Then we will see the real Maui of the Polynesian myths. But Disney better hurry before The Rock shrinks.

Have a Maui Christmas! (as in “demi-divine”)


LV Letalu 

Lalomanu and Utah

Samoa Observer

Upgrade to Premium

Subscribe to
Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy unlimited access to all our articles on any device + free trial to e-Edition. You can cancel anytime.