What does this strutting crab have to do with Disney’s mega baddies? He acts like a baddie in the first place.
Tamatoa is the “real” villain in Disney’s 2016 hit Moana. He’s slimy, vindictive, fabulous, and has a massive(ly) fragile ego. Moana’s trying to restore the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful owner, but this colossal coconut crab will be darned if some mere human is going to swipe his chance to take such a treasure for himself.
I guess he gets darned then. But before we head into an analysis of Tamatoa and his unforgettable song “Shiny”, let’s pause to explain my definition of a real Disney villain.
Villains are nasty. They’re wicked, deplorable beasts. Of course, you can like villains—they’re known for stealing the show with their grotesquely attractive qualities. A sign of a really good villain is that you’re disgusted by them also drawn to them. Villains let us explore the darkest sides of humanity in as realistic or fantastic a manner as we please, making them so compelling as fictional characters. In the old days (yes, I’m sounding like a bitter and regressive villain right now), Disney was known for its biggest, grandest, most vile cartoon villains of American cinema. They were legion in their evil, no deed surpassing a PG rating too low. Maleficent, Jafar, Lady Tremaine, Scar…all of them and more get a seat among Disney’s royal table of villains.
Now, Tamatoa probably wouldn’t sit up there with the best. But he gets an honorary mention for being the first “real” Disney villain in recent years. The ones who don’t have a human dimension that reflects on society. The ones whose motives range from blindly vengeful to petty. Tamatoa lives on the fringes of the society swirling in a cauldron of darkness, and that should give him a seat in the corner of the ultimate hall of Disney villains.
Recent Disney villains haven’t really been evil. They’re the antagonists, and they do bad things, but they don’t have the malice that imbues them to their cores. They’re not villains who revel in their villainy enough to make us love to hate them. They’re realistic villains who truly have a reason to turn to the dark side. Is that bad? Not inherently. It’s just kind of disappointing to have the company’s bad guys gradually mellow into downtrodden, relatable victims of cruel injustice. It’s a great lesson, to be sure, when it doesn’t profile the villain every time.
And here is where we return to Tamatoa, the simply glamorous inhabitant of Lalotai. Tamatoa loves all things shiny, and he collects every glittering object he can to add to the pile of golden bling fastened to his shell. His makes him an apparent oddity to the Realm of Monsters, an underwater jungle teeming with ferocious beasts. But that doesn’t matter to Tamatoa. He’s shiny, and looks great, and is finally him. By his own measure, Tamatoa used to be a “drab little crab” until he had his leg ripped off by the supposed hero of the movie, the disgraced demigod Maui. After that, Tamatoa decided to literally improve his self-image by becoming as gorgeously shiny as possible. Now it doesn’t matter what his past is, because he’s beautiful, baby.
Does this sound like the turnaround for the wounded hero shedding his worries? Well, not quite, because Tamatoa has always been pretty nasty. He’s the story of a victim turned petty—self-absorbed creature painted by his loathing and insecurity. We see the extent of his materialism the second we meet him in his lair. “Ooh,” he says with a deliciously creepy voice provided by Jemaine Clement. He winds out of the sand to an alarming brass score, all gigantic gold and purple of him coming to face Moana like a gleeful hermit squinting out the front door of his cabin in the woods. For the first time since her Grandma Tala lay dying, Moana is afraid. “What have we here?” Tamatoa wonders. He squints at Moana in her luminous disguise, inspecting his new find. “It’s a sparkly, shiny—wait a minute.” He sloughs off Moana’s shells with a flick of his claw, and his fascination turns to revulsion. “Ugh! It’s a human!” Grandiose to the point of being theatrical, he plays up the name of his home world. “What are you doing down here in the Realm of the Mon—just pick an eye, babe.” As a crab, they exist on separate stalks.
I should take a moment to describe Tamatoa’s appearance. He’s practically copyrighted by his glittering shell. It’s hard to imagine him without all the shiny. He’s even bedazzled his chin—is no place too sacred to glam up? Despite all the decoration, Tamatoa still looks pretty freaky. Doughy and bumpy, the crab’s head has got some extra skin to stretch and squash into his diorama of memorable faces. His facial flab, however, doubles as the self-contented face of a villain whose excess weight brings a kind of gleaming freakiness to his face and the puffy skin around it. I am saying this in the context of a truly bad individual whose actions make their weight look repugnant. Added on to that are Tamatoa’s bulbous eyes, clicking this way and that with slick sounds that impel the extra lip-curls we make when we recognize a creep. It is Tamatoa’s face that grabs us the most with all its expressions. The way he carries himself throughout his musical number has a pizzazz and confidence reminiscent to the underwater witch Ursula. He has showmanship, choreography, and oozes with the enjoyment of his greatness. Simply put, he is crabulous.
Not all is well in the land of crustacean glitz and glam, though. His awakening light continued not to spread goodness, but to be petty and bring others down. Moana picks and eye and manages to distract Tamatoa by getting him to talk about himself. He gladly does so, and flips a cue toward the clam serving as his roof to kick up the atmosphere for his ultimate scene, the musical number.
Look at it. Each frame of this song is so beautifully designed and animated. It’s just right to catch you up into this villainous solo. And in the middle of it all is Tamatoa, seizing his chance to be spectacular in front of an audience of one.
He’s got style. Tamatoa deserves to live up his song because he performs it with such exceptional showiness and confidence. He’s nailing it. It’s almost enough for you to overlook the way he swings Moana about while threatening her and telling her that her grandmother lied. All because she’s not him. This song’s not about reaching a bigger goal. It’s not like Ursala lustrously conning Ariel out of her voice or Scar plotting the deaths of his family members to usurp the throne. This song is entirely about Tamatoa and how awesome he is—and it only gets worse when he finds out Maui’s powers are out of commission.
Tamatoa really is a monster. Not only is he gross, narcissistic, and antisocially hermetic, but also he’s emotionally damaging. Seeing that Maui is no longer a threat, a smile spreads across Tamatoa’s face as he takes the opportunity for payback.
“Well, well, well
Little Maui’s having trouble with his look
You little semi-demi-mini-god”
He wiggles his shell, knocking Maui off his balance to further rattle him now that he’s vulnerable. On the sand, Moana dodges Tamatoa’s giant feet, their tips hitting the sand inches away. Maui dips and scatters across Tamatoa’s immense shell, each land hurting more with the the clinking pile of objects on the villain’s back.
Tamatoa is the definition of vindictive. After he’s done teasing Maui with his stanza, he knocks him off towards the ground and catches Maui’s hook around his claw, spinning the still-clinging demigod before flicking him to the wall. For a moment during that spin, Tamatoa stops smiling. He becomes unimpressed, looking down at Maui before he becomes happy again. In the next shot, he sways closer to Maui, giving his thanks that the demigod gave him his “start” and then throwing him against the roof, seemingly as an afterthought—Tamatoa goes right back to singing about how amazing he is.
He struts his stuff. He’s a gem among common rocks. Props to the animation team for this excellent sequence. Tamatoa then throws Moana into a prison that resembles a circle of bones. “Send your armies but they’ll never be enough.” He winks at Moana and knocks his shell. “My shell’s too tough”—His face drops to a scowl—“Maui man.”
He pierces Maui’s foot. Maui cries out in pain. Tamatoa drags him away from his beloved hook, and when Maui drags himself back, Tamatoa picks him up and strums him off of it like a guitar. “You will die, die, die / Now it’s time for me to take apart / Your aching heart.” You can hear the glee. You can see it as Tamatoa watches Maui fall off the hook to the ground. He’s so into it that that you almost forget about Maui’s health bar drop. Tamatoa snaps for a light change, and his skin glows blue and fuchsia as the clam closes.
Here’s where Tamatoa gets personal. Malevolent, he goes for the sting as he sings about the insecurities that led Maui to needing his hook. He stalks to Maui’s back, brushes away the hair covering his heartbreaking tattoo, then picks up Maui by the hair while he’s still dizzy and aching. Ouch! Sneering, Tamatoa degrades Maui for “Chasing the love of these humans / Who made you feel wanted” as he dangles the demigod over Moana’s cage. They turn away, and she makes her escape. Tamatoa continues to taunt Maui, saying “You tried to be tough / But your armor’s just not hard enough.” Coordinated with his lyrics, the giant crab runs Maui along the wall. Maui gets flung in the air, limp as a rag doll, and when he falls back down, Tamatoa makes the ultimate hit. “Now it’s time to kick your hinney,” he sings, kicking up a leg with perfect timing to bump Maui back onto his bio luminescent shell. Got him back! Maui wishes he were shiny, right? “Soak it in ‘cause it’s the last you’ll ever see,” Tamatoa sings in celebration of himself. Maui slogs his head up, his vision waving as he still tries to move toward his hook. Aware of this, Tamatoa swirls around on the ocean floor to fling Maui and show off how shiny he is. He succeeds in both, leaving Maui to smack against another wall, thoroughly defeated.
“You’ll never be quite as shiny
You wish you were nice and shiny…”
He flips Maui into his mouth and bites down, but a voice yells, “Hey!” Turns out Moana’s still there. She waves a glowing green treasure at Tamatoa. He spits out Maui, staring in reverence…the heart of Te Fiti!
“You can’t run from me,” he says. She does. “Oh, you can. You keep surprising me.”
Moana tries to run, but what’s the use when she’s got such little legs? Tamatoa bears upon her in the next shot, until she trips and drops the heart into a really convenient crevice. Tamatoa dives after it, digging in fevered excitement at the power that’s about to be his.
So there’s the villainy of Tamatoa. Vengeful, stylish, repulsive, and grand, he’s a Disney villain we haven’t seen since Mother Gothel. He stole the spotlight of his movie, and he did so with all the fashion and relish of a “real” Disney baddie. Tamatoa’s no Frollo or Scar, but he could sure try to be them if he ever got himself out of that little realm. This icky coconut crab deserves an honorary mention among Disney villains, from his nasty presence to the blind greed that overtakes him in the face of Te Fiti.
Moana’s sacrifice, of course, turns out a sham, because while Tamatoa was having his song and dance number, she was smearing bio-luminescent algae onto a common barnacle. Tamatoa’s artistic hubris kicks his butt! He ends up defeated when Moana and Maui grab a geyser back to their world. The blast knocks Tamatoa on his back, which is bad news for a crab. “Hey! Hey!” Tamatoa yells. Then, the insecurity of the foiled Disney villain shines through.
“Did you like the song?”
“Shiny” composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Mancina.