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Moana and Disney Spirituality

Updated: May 8, 2019

Gramma Tala: That voice inside is who you are


Moana is an interesting mix of Disney at its best…

(Award-winning song, strong female protagonist, stunning animation, amusing animal sidekick, shiny crab villain etc. )

And Disney at it’s most problematic, although that does depend on your view point.

A lot of research may have gone into the film, but that hasn’t saved it from accusations of cultural appropriation (yes there is an abundance of potentially problematic coconuts). However, I won’t delve fully into this issue because plenty of more knowledgeable and more qualified people have written on the subject.

I’m interested in the way that Polynesian beliefs have been fused with Western ideals and Christian themes in this film to create a sort of Disney spirituality that is palatable to a modern audience.

Moana follows in the Pocahontas tradition of the grandmother figure as spiritual guide. Both of these narratives have a spiritual element rooted in the film’s cultural context. However, from my limited understanding of Polynesian and Powhatan culture, the belief systems seem to be presented in a vague sort of way - an amalgamation of various myths and ideas, rather than an authentic representation of indigenous spirituality. If you remove the spiritual element from either of these films, you are left with the classic Disney “follow your heart” message. Grandmother Willow may talk about the spirits of the earth, but in the end her message to Pocahontas simply comes back to “listen with your heart.” Similarly, Moana’s dead grandma may appear in the form of a spirit stingray, but her advice rings of the same old western individualism, listen to “the quiet voice within.” It’s a nice idea I guess, especially coming from some lovable old women who may remind us of our own grandmothers.

Now there are definitely some very good lessons to learn from Moana. She is a great role model for young girls and boys, showing courage, kindness, and determination. And she doesn’t fall into the usual princessy sterotype, which makes my feminist self a very happy bunny. Through all her trials, she remains secure in her identity. “I am a girl who loves my island…I am Moana etc.”

Moana perhaps goes a little further than your average Disney film in exploring identity; it’s not purely about the individual. She recognises herself as “daughter of the village chief… descended from voyagers”. So we do get a sense of a group identity, which of course has a significant impact on her calling as an individual.

Her love of the sea is also key to her understanding of herself, framing her identity in relation to a bigger ecological story. In this film, nature is a dynamic, personified force, not simply a backdrop. Te Ka causes the ‘darkness’ on the island, the sea chooses Moana, and Te Fiti acts as a Mother Earth figure.

Perhaps what is most striking about this plot device is that Te Ka isn’t really your average villain. With the restoration of her heart, she is transformed into Te Fiti. Moana follows in the new trend of Disney films that don’t have a classic villain.* Instead we are given a more nuanced understanding of good and evil. This is one of the ways in which the film departs from Polynesian mythology; Te Ka/Te Fiti may be loosely based on the goddess, Pele, but this particular redemptive narrative is a Disney creation.

In many ways, the redemptive storyline echoes biblical themes; we’ve got a creation story, a fall caused by someone taking what is not rightfully theirs, a land/people under a curse, and a chosen saviour who restores the earth to its former glory. At the climax of the story, we even witness a parting of the sea. (Yep the water in this film is truly ‘living water’!) Moreover, the idea that each individual has the capacity for both good and evil (as represented by Te Ka/Te Fiti) is central to the Christian gospel.

And how is this darkness overcome in the film? Not through violence, but through an act of great courage, self-sacrifice and compassion. This is a beautiful message, which I’m sure can be appreciated whatever your faith or beliefs may be. However, the question this film fails to answer is how do we respond to the good and evil within us?

It’s a lovely idea that “the voice inside is who you are.” But what if we’re not always good on the inside? What if there is within all of us an angry, bitter and destructive Te Ka? Perhaps we may all be in need of having our hearts restored.

I think most of us will also recognise that the voice within us isn’t always so easy to hear or understand. We live in a society that is obsessed with ‘being yourself’, and thanks to popular culture, we have an endless choice of individualistic anthems: Moana’s How Far I’ll Go, Let It Go from Frozen, This is Me from The Greatest Showman etc. But how can we sing at the top of our lungs about our own identity and bravely dive into the ocean of our own lives, if we don’t know who we are, what we’re diving for, or why?

Rowan Williams explains this problem succinctly in his book “Silence and Honey Cakes”:

There is a saying ascribed to Isidore the Priest warning that "of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart." The modern reader will be taken aback. "Follow what your heart says" is part of the standard popular wisdom of our day, like "following your dream." Are we being told to suspect our deepest emotions and longings, when surely we have learned that we have to listen to what's deepest in us and accept and nurture our real feelings? But the desert monastics would reply that, left to ourselves, the search for what the heart prompts is like peeling an onion; we are not going to arrive at a pure and simple set of inclinations. In the matter of self-examination, as in others, "the truth is rarely "pure" and never "simple."”

In a culture where it’s not all that fashionable to be ‘religious’, I can see why the follow your heart narrative is an easier one to swallow. And there’s certainly many useful lessons to learn from Moana and other Disney films (as well as much to be enjoyed!) Sometimes, we do have to follow our calling, like Moana, even if it’s not what our family, friends, or community expect of us.

And yet are we also willing to temper this idea with realism? Do we recognise that we may not always know the right path, nor may we understand fully who we are?

I’ll finish with this great quote from Maui, “We’re here because the ocean told you you’re special and you believe it.” Most of us would like to believe that we are special and have our own unique purpose, but what is our reference point for this hope? I suppose it all depends on what ocean you are listening to in your own life.

Is that ocean ‘living water’? (John 4:10)


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