115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Rhetoric, Knowledge, and the Hero’s Journey in Disney’s Moana

Joseph Philip Whatford, "California State University, San Bernardino"

Characters in Disney’s Moana use rhetoric to fool the protagonist, but she gains knowledge through the dialectic of her hero’s journey. This paper also argues the film’s creators seem to construct a respectful portrayal of Oceanic rhetoric and narrative, but Western ideas as influenced by Plato come through as subtext.

Proposal: 

Characters in Disney’s Moana use rhetoric to influence and fool the protagonist, but she gains knowledge through the dialectic of her hero’s journey. This paper will use Plato’s critique of rhetoric as a foundation for analyzing how these characters persuade for their own purposes. The demigod Maui weaves a tapestry of images and story to trap her and take her boat. Gilded Tamatoa poses as a false source of light/knowledge to attract and fool audiences. Plato argues rhetoric can fool audiences with pretty words, but it lacks substance. Moana gains substantial knowledge by dealing with these obstacles, and she returns and shares her knowledge with her people. This paper also argues the creators of this film seem to construct a respectful portrayal of Oceanic rhetoric and narrative, but Western ideas as influenced by Plato come through as subtext.

 

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss how rhetoric can mislead audiences, and it needs to serve as a refractor and disseminator of knowledge. Maui uses rhetoric to fool Moana and steal her boat, but it also introduces his character. Using Plato’s ideas as a frame, the contrast between Maui’s story (oral history) and Plato’s dialectic (Western thought) opens a discussion about how we make knowledge.  Maui fools his audience, but his song reflects a rich human tradition: we make sense of the world through story.  Using Plato’s ideas as a dominant frame does not respect Oceanic rhetorics; instead, we need to consider Plato’s ideas and Maui’s rhetoric equally to understand how rhetoric and knowledge work across borders.

 

Maui crafts a strong appeal and believes it himself, whereas Tamatoa remains unabashedly proud of his ability to fool others with his shiny rhetoric. His gilded backside mimes the sun, a Platonic symbol for knowledge, but his place in the underworld correlates with Plato’s myth of the cave. Tamatoa projects false light and images on the cave walls, but Moana fools him with his own empty rhetoric.

 

Moana’s descent to the underworld and interaction with Tamatoa helps her gain knowledge. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell discusses how entering the underworld simulates a death experience, where the hero shrugs off the past self and gains knowledge. I synthesize Campbell’s death experience with Plato’s sun metaphor to understand Moana’s journey as a hero.

 

Disney’s approach in Moana seems to respect the culture of Oceana, and the subtext incorporates Western thought as influenced by Plato. I want to dig into this intertextual use of Plato and Campbell to create a story about Oceana. Plato’s ideas permeate the foundation of our understanding of knowledge and rhetoric, and attempting to deny this influence will undermine our understanding of ourselves. Disney’s use of Western philosophy, whether conscious or not, does not interfere with the rich cultural references that enhance this film. Both Oceanic and Platonic ideas intersect and bridge the gap among these rhetorical traditions and cultures.