Disney’s Moana: Know Your Story Movie Review and Theological Reflection by Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

Water. The Disney Animation Studio has mastered the look and feel of the ocean—a most difficult animation art.  It’s keep-your-mouth-closed-before-your-jaw-drops brilliant.  And that is fitting, indeed, for water is the source of life and without it, there can no life and no stories. In this mash-up of Ancient Hawaiian Mythology’s Creation Tales, the earth and its fruits are dying.  Centuries ago, the demigod Maui stole the heart of Mother Earth and offered humanity its power.  Interestingly, the consequences of this subjugation have only begun to surface in the here and now—in the time frame of our story.  What happened?

Apparently, humanity abused its power and even the tribe that kept itself apart from “the others,” i.e. “the abusers,” have come to face what the rest of the world faces: reckoning day. Thankfully, for the children in the movie theaters, there are only small signs of nature’s imbalance at the film’s onset (contemporary allusions notwithstanding).  These Hawaiian folks, however, are intuitive enough to know that small signs are indications of larger event to come.  Who will find Maui and convince him to return the heart of the earth to Mother Nature?  What will happen when he or she does?  That is the crux of the drama and it’s a good one.  I don’t know how many people will read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (“Praise Be (to the Lord) for Creation) with its challenges for us to care for our earthly home and all who live within it, but I imagine far more will see this movie. I hope MOANA keeps the conversation going and inspires more civil action to care for the earth and everything in it.

Fittingly, the Ocean—the original conduit of life in all its forms at earth’s beginning–is a character all its own.  Its animated spirit inspires a young girl Moana (pronounced MWAH-nah) to go where her island people have feared to go.  Although she is heir to the island’s throne, Moana refuses to be “a princess” until she first becomes “a person” — a person concerned about other persons and the world beyond her.   She knows this because she has learned her peoples’ story and that of her family as well—stories that equip her to respond to the call of the waters—a call initiated in her toddlerhood, several years before Moana grew in consciousness, talent and will power.  (Thoughts of Baptism, Mikveh, Confirmation, Bar / Bat Mitzvah, Dedication anyone?)  Moana will journey to Maui and beyond, moving forward on a quest that the adults are unwilling to attempt. Children manifesting a wisdom eschewed by adults is an oft-encountered theme in Disney and innumerable other sources.  I’m sure you can think of a few.

Watching the film, I thought of the innumerable ways the great myths of so many societies overlap in points of intersection that reveal essential truths, no matter the peoples, the culture or setting.  Hopefully, in reading this article, Biblical references like the following already are flowing through your mind:

Genesis 1:28   God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Isaiah 3:14   The Lord enters judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

Jeremiah 12:10  Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.

 Jeremiah 31:5  Again, you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. 

Isaiah 11:6  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. [1]

In the Hawaiian Myth, Moana is the child who will lead. And lead she can, because as among the best of Biblical, Religious, Myth and Folk Tale heroes, Moana is not, “a self-made hero.”[2]   Her ancestors’ history and stories told to her by her grandmother play an essential role in her evolving self-understanding and mission. Because she is initiated into these deeper realities, Moana is ready to live her life, find her purpose and embark on her adventure.  (Do we only go to the movies for “adventure?”  Don’t our spirits long for worthwhile quests and accomplishments in our daily lives?  Don’t we depend on others–past, present and future–to find our way?)

The movies’ emphasis on knowledge of the past compelled me to ask “How many of us who follow Biblical Religions, who have a wealth of stories from Bible and history, the knowledge of our family trees and ancestors at our fingertips, utilize these gifts?  Well, don’t fret.  Most of Moana’s family and friends don’t know or understand their history either.  But Moana does.  Heroes do.  Prompted by her grandmother Moana sets out to fix, to heal, to restore—a universal challenge for each new generation.  You next?

MOANA’s screenplay is credited to Jared Bush (Zootopia) and he’s done a fine job.  But let us be sure to recognize that he was inspired by a small village of collaborators. The movie’s story evolved through the minds of its four directors Ron Clements (Little Mermaid; Aladdin), Don Hall (Big Hero 6) John Musker (Hercules; Princess and the Frog), Chris Williams (Bolt) PLUS three others: Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell.  Who’s the “self-made” man here?  Together they have created an engaging and thought-provoking entertainment in which each major character evidences light and shadow in addressing the complexity in the choices before them.  The songs they sing also identify these inner struggles.  One song lyric states “You can find happiness right where you are” while another emphasizes the drive to go beyond the comfortable: “How Far I’ll Go.”  These drives are not in opposition but part of an essential balance.  We need to appreciate our life as it is AND go beyond what we have and know to grow into mature adults. Hopefully, we never stop growing. There’s a Buddhist saying: “We’re perfect as we are AND all life is change.”

Regarding the film’s music, the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are exactly what we could expect from the composer/ creator of HAMILTON, THE MUSICAL: rhythmic and joyful with playful lyrics.  Not coincidentally one of the questions MOANA asks its audience is the same question that HAMILTON does “Do you know your story?” http://www.linmanuel.com

And for cultural authenticity and local color, the film offers songs by Opetaia Foa’I (of the band Te Vaka, specialists in indie /South Pacific music).  Beautiful!   http://disneyexaminer.com/2016/11/04/moanas-music-will-highlight-the-culture-of-the-south-pacific-an-interview-with-composer-opetaia-foai-of-te-vaka/

The score by Mark Mancina is refined, well-tuned and effective.  His work conveys excitement and intimate sentiments equally well.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Mancina

As for the rest: the voice talent fits the characters felicitously and the host of animators have collaborated for a feast for the eyes. In brief, MOANA is well worth your family’s time and treasure spent in a trip to your local theater.

In conclusion, I am thankful that the creators of MOANA are engaging us in the big issues of personhood, climate change, manhood / womanhood among other concepts.  As you leave the multiplex, you may wish to entertain some of these questions the MOANA experience poses should you like to move beyond its entertainment value alone:

  • How well do you know your stories—Biblical, national, familial and personal? Are you willing engage them, learn from them, be humbled by them, gain wisdom through them?  Do you tend to focus more on current trends and fashions and neglect the insights of history?
  • Are you actively engaged in life’s adventures or content to be a consumer?  Have you negotiated a “proper balance?”  Typically, our leisure comprises watching movies (I love movies!) and TV (there are some great TV shows these days) — but how much, how many and to what end?  How may we utilize the gift of entertainment toward the realm of action for a greater good?
  • How may we better honor our seniors, gain from the insights of their experiences?
  • Are we willing to take the risk of blessing other peoples and their faiths, myths and stories and find and cultivate the points of commonality and so experience harmony in diversity?

For more information on MOANA:   http://movies.disney.com/moana

http://disneyexaminer.com/2016/11/04/moanas-music-will-highlight-the-culture-of-the-south-pacific-an-interview-with-composer-opetaia-foai-of-te-vaka/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3521164/?ref_=nm_knf_i1

[1] All citations from the New Revised Standard Version of THE BIBLE (NRSV)

[2] God is always at work. And heroes are cultivated by others who hand on a belief system, ethics and a culture. For all our “American Independence” there is no such thing as a truly “self-made man” or “self-made woman.”  We are more “inter-dependent” than we like to admit.

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