Movie Review: Moana
Moana: the power of myth in a frightening world
Reviewed by Nathan Campbell
Disney seems to be in the process of reinventing the princess. No longer are its heroines prepared simply to be damsels in distress on the path to find Prince Charming (or his equivalent). Now in the post-Frozen world (or perhaps post-Brave world) the Disney princess is independent, adventurous and heroic. Which, as a father with two young daughters in a world that sometimes appears monstrous, I can only say is an improvement.
The title character in Disney’s latest princess outing, Moana, heads off on a world-saving adventure away from the safety of her village and into the wild blue Pacific Ocean, made even wilder by her encounters with a pantheon of islander gods. The world is falling apart because the Pacific Island demi-god Maui stole the “heartstone” of the goddess Te Fiti. Without this stone she is a monster who no longer sustains the life of her islander people.
Moana is a visual masterpiece. From start to finish it is a captivating piece of story-telling, with the Pacific island setting rendered in 3D computer animation in such a way as to add enchantment to an already “magical” mythical story. The musical score is exceptional. It features a couple of the sorts of anthems that are the staple of successful Disney movies – those songs that captivate your five-year-old daughter and keep her dressing up as a princess for up to two years.
The movie is self-consciously ‘mythic’. It opens with the words, “In the beginning”, as Moana Waialiki’s grandmother teaches the village toddlers their creation story.
Myth gets a bad rap in Christian circles at times. Its technical meaning is not a “fictional fairytale of no value”, but rather “a story that organises your view of life in the world”. To be human, as J.R.R Tolkien put it in his landmark essay, On Fairy Stories, is to be capable of “myth-making”, to be able to bring worlds to life from our imaginations through words.
The myths we create, however, are a melting pot of truth and idolatry. Our God-given imaginations allow us to live in creative ways that reflect who He is, and to make beautiful things such as animated movies. But when our imaginations aren’t fixated on who God is, we conceive idols and new myths to live by – apart, that is, from the true “myth”, the Gospel.
Moana is a triumph of human creativity, but also shows where our creativity can misfire because of sin. Moana’s mythic power doesn’t lie so much in the pagan origins of the Maui story, but in the more modern myth about what real human flourishing looks like.
The story’s young heroine, Moana, discovers that flourishing isn’t found by remaining safely in her home village where children are assured “there are no monsters” and “this is paradise”. Rather, it is to be found by seeking the answer to the question, “Who are you meant to be?” For Moana, the answer to this is found in the “calling inside of her” that comes from her heart, and from the gods – a call to adventure.
There is much to appreciate in Moana, including, I think, the challenge for Christian parents not to shelter our children in a safe harbour away from monsters, but to be prepared to make them dangerous to the world by teaching them who they really are, and shaping them to follow the “call to adventure” that we receive from our Lord Jesus.
But there is another aspect of this film we should be wary of, because at the heart of Moana’s mythic story is the idea that it is our responsibility to be the hero. The Christian “myth” says otherwise. It declares that Jesus is the hero who fixes the world.
Moana teaches that our telos – our calling – comes from within. The Christian myth teaches us that our calling comes from without – that is, from the God who made us with the purpose of our representing and ruling in His world by reflecting His image. Moreover, the Lord calls us to go into the world to make disciples.
While watching Moana in all its beauty, we should remember we already have our own myth, as C.S. Lewis puts it. And it is a good one, because it is true, and truly reorganises and repairs our world.
Lewis said in an essay in his book, God in the Dock: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.”
Rev. Nathan Campbell is a minister with Creek Road (South Bank) Presbyterian Church and author of the blog ‘St. Eutychus’.