Being an author is kind of a curse. Whenever I watch a movie, I can’t help but analyze. Everything. So when I first stumbled on Moana, I knew I had something brilliant. I sat on the floor and watched it with my son. Read: I sat on the floor in a sobbing mess while my son set the house on fire behind me.
Houses can be rebuilt. Don’t worry.
I loved it so much I turned it into a study and broke down the what and the why of this near-perfect story structure. For you other story nerds, this is going to rock. your. world.
Read on, Moanaites.
Moana: The Three Act Structure
This is all opinion, my friends. Feel free to dispute, but we all see things differently. I should also note that I draw a lot of this structure that I’ve developed from an amalgamation of three different people:
The Story Grid Podcast
Main Character/ Protagonist: Moana
Wants: to explore the ocean
Needs: to save her people
Te Ka, the lava monster. The decaying crops and island as well, resulting from Te Fiti’s lost heart.
What are we defined by?
It’s important to note that, by the end of the story, Moana brings this full circle with the help of the antagonist. Which is part of the reason I feel the ending payoff is SO satisfying. Also, this is a theme that pervades throughout humanity. At our core, we are always searching for origins. For what defines us.
It’s also worth noting that even Maui struggles with this theme, as he feels he is not “Maui” without his hook.
—The most notable of these are within her family. This theme pervades through the whole story on several levels, from her grandmother, to her parents (mostly her father), and then to a connection with her ancestors.
—Another strong, pervasive relationship extends to her and the ocean. This one is so important because it invokes a huge sense of wonder from the very beginning. I want the ocean to communicate with me and show me all the best shells! It’s this sense of wonder that, for me, makes this relationship so strong and compelling.
3 Act Structure
Moana’s grandmother tells the story of the missing heart of the ocean. (And children start screaming and fainting). While this definitely pulls the watcher in, I feel the best part of the hook is when Moana encounters the ocean and we see her deep connection to it.
Inciting Incident (Start of the Story):
Moana learns of issues plaguing her island; the coconut trees are dying. There is no fish.
Refusal of the Call:
Moana fails when she takes a canoe out on the ocean, then on the beach, resigns herself to being a leader. Through this scene we learn that Moana has a huge sailing deficit: she doesn’t know how to do what she wants to do. It’s quite dangerous. This sets the stakes in a beautiful way.
Key Event (Pulls MC into the story):
Moana’s grandmother shows her the ships of their ancestors, and she learns that they used to be voyagers. They used to explore the ocean the way she wants to.
1st Plot Point (Point of No Return):
Moana’s grandmother dies and gives her the heart of the ocean. Moana accepts the call to save her people, find Maui, and restore the heart of the ocean to Tafiti.
Another note: right before this happens, Moana’s father is just about to burn the canoes and demolish all chances of Moana restoring the heart. This was great to ramp up tension for what Moana is about to do.
Note 2: the death of her grandmother at this point invokes a huge sense of wonder, especially when her “soul” races after Moana and follows her into the ocean.
Strong Reaction to 1st Plot Point
We see this as a series of events, I believe, as Moana struggles through her new reality: IE—she has no idea how to sail. She’s full of hope. Fatigue. And finally (when she’s stranded on a random island) frustration and anger.
1st Pinch Point:
Convincing Maui/Getting the heart back from the coconut pirates. This is arguably one scene because there’s no definitive break, but I’d still consider it two scenes. At this point, we see what they’re up against, as well as the value of the heart.
Midpoint (the MC turns to fight against the antagonist)
Moana (and the ocean) convince/force Maui to teach her how to sail. She takes action in order to make the events come about.
2nd Pinch Point
Getting the hook back from Tamatoa for Maui.
Note: After this scene, we have a really good reaction scene where we learn more about Maui. From there, we have a montage of post midpoint “wins” when Maui reacquaints himself with his hook and prepares to defeat Te Ka.
3rd Plot Point (lowest point):
Maui and Moana fail to defeat Te Ka. Maui leaves. The main theme is reinforced with his words “Without my hook, I am nothing!” and then Moana’s response when she repeats her grandmother’s refrain.
This foreshadows Moana’s later strategy when she returns.
Outside Help Scene:
Moana’s grandmother comes to give her strength when she’s convinced she cannot do it. Moana has hit her lowest point and feels she cannot go on. (A very typical and necessary 3rd arc scene, IMO).
This is absolutely one of my favorite scenes from the movie. This scene invokes emotion, wonder, connection, and pulls in the two main themes I identified earlier of family and identity. I think it’s worth mentioning that Moana makes the choice to continue going forward. There’s a shift from negative (Maui leaving, their failure) to positive (she’s empowered, knows who she is, and sails on alone.)
Moana (a now competent sailer) takes on Te Fiti alone.
Maui shows up (which could arguably be the Outside Help, but I still feel the grandmother is more established of an outside help in that regard.)
Just as Maui is about to perish, Moana calls Te Ka’s attention and faces the monster on her own. The highest point of the climax is when Te Ka crawls toward her in a burning mass of fire and smoke.
Note: The reason this climax is, in my opinion, so strong, is because it calls back to the main theme that’s been pervasive for all main characters, but in their own ways. (That of identity). That’s why this is masterful storytelling. Not to mention the strong sense of wonder that Te Fiti’s return invokes. Even Maui, at the end, learns that he doesn’t need his hook to be who he is.
Maui receives his hook back, Moana becomes the Master Wayfinder for her people, and her people become voyagers yet again. The island is saved!
Reading the Wikipedia page for Moana was surprisingly validating. Here are a few tidbits about the story itself that made me feel better about my own story process. (Because let’s face it: it gets ugly to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite to get it all perfect.)
—To say Moana went through drastic revisions is undercutting it a bit. The original storyline had Moana as the only girl amongst 5 or 6 brothers. The addition of her grandmother came much later. At one point, they considered having Moana save her father. Another thing that surprised me was the various number of people who worked on Moana
—Over 90 animators worked on this movie.
—Even after the development processed had finalized, and production already started on the actual show, they found major plot issues and problems and had to hire outside help to come in and fix them. Much of it revolved around emotional resonance. (Which is a major highlight of the film for me.)
What did you think of Moana?
Leave your thoughts in the comments. Can’t wait to hear what you thought!