After rewatching Moana a couple of times (maybe twelve or something idk whatever don’t judge me) my best friend (@elisekova) and I stumbled onto a pretty dark but undeniably plausible plot theory.
The ocean crashes her boat in the storm (and onto Maui’s island) and intentionally neglects to save her. Why? Because it needed her to die.
Outside of the anthropomorphic nature of the ocean (which can be explained away by the ancient power of an ageless entity able to transcend planes) and the “Bang the drum” scene with granny (which is more of a hallucination that could have been sent from the spirit world) there is no proof of magic or monster prior to meeting Maui. Possible reason? Because all the monsters and magic exist on a limenal plane. A sort of purgatory, if you will. Like a purgatory where someone such as Maui may have been stuck for 1000 years. And how does one get to purgatory, you ask?
Moana’s death explains quite a bit, not just about her ability to see and touch the spirit of her grandma (“If you are ready to go home, I will be with you.”) as well as travel to lands no mortal should be able to travel to (aka that crazy portal jump to Lalotai), but it explains away her ability to withstand things that should otherwise be damaging or fatal to a human. Again, Lalotai, Tomatoa, the Kakamora fight, and especially the definitely would-be-fatal blast in their first fight against Takka. Among others.
Even Maui proclaims that he would, “never make this journey with a mere mortal,” but then turns around and makes it anyway. Perhaps he realizes she’s no longer quite mortal, so to speak.
Basically, in order to do all these things, survive all these creatures from a noticeably “other” world or plane, Moana had to exist on that plane as well. The only way to achieve that being the undisclosed sacrifice of her life. A sacrifice repaid in full by Tefiti once Moana returns her heart.
Maui has already told us that Tefiti’s heart carries the ability to “create life itself.” So what better way to thank Moana for giving up her life, then to give it back. Along with a fancy ride to take back to her plane and her family.
It can even be argued that the heart is a beacon for life, not just glowing brighter and beating stronger as it gets closer to Tefiti, but keeping Moana in the In-Between. When Moana gives the heart back to the ocean, her vision of the spirits (granny as well as all the past voyagers) becomes much stronger. The moment it’s back in her hand, everything seems normal again. Like Moana is closer to life than she is to crossing over.
Perhaps Moana wasn’t even aware of her death, “waking up” exactly where she needed to be, in the presence of the Demi-god she needed to lead. Or perhaps she was aware, taking every impossible obstacle in stride because of it. Either way, she follows her path and returns the heart, her only purpose in the aftermath of her death. Possibly even adding to her inability to turn around and go home when given the chance.
All this also gives much stronger meaning to the line in the final song: “I have crossed the horizon to find you.” It also puts weight in Maui’s tearful goodbye, knowing that in many ways, he can not follow her back. As a hawk guarding her sky, but no more. And once she returns, the symbol of Tefiti is no longer present on any of the boats, and with the symbol, that final link to the spirit world is gone.
Long story short, Moana may have gone a liiiiiiittle ways past the reef.