A smart brave young female lead, a wise grandmother who says, “My job is to be the village crazy lady,” a goddess of all creation whose heart has been ripped out, and the ocean itself as a lead character in the plot – what’s not to adore in the new Disney movie Moana?
The name Moana literally means “ocean” in Maori and Hawaiian. The whole film is a celebration of the deep power and call of the sea, which rises up before the young girl, chooses her to save her people, and stays with her, empowering her until the end.
Disney seems to have heard the criticism that so many of their previous films failed to understand or honor their cultural contexts (Aladdin, Mulan etc.) For Moana they employed a group of Pacific Islander experts, they called the Oceanic Story Trust which included academics, archeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historians, but also tattoo artists, fisherman and elders. A canoe instructor reminded them, “You have to listen carefully to the ocean. The ocean does not divide the lands, it connects them.”
As a person of faith who follows “the way” and who loves the sea, I was delighted to learn more about the Polynesian tradition of “wayfinding” across the ocean. “We know the way, we know who we are, we know where we are” – just one of the many great songs, some by Lin-Manual Miranda. Moana finds a way to save her island from the environmental tragedy of “heartless” climate change, she learns about her heritage and she risks all for her people’s future.
I saw Moana with my daughter Norah over Thanksgiving. What a relief that it’s not another Disney film about a princess. (Maui the demigod keeps snidely calling her “Princess,” and insists, in a charming Disney self-mocking moment, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” But Moana refuses the title, “I am not a princess. I am the daughter of the chief!”) Amazingly there is no romance at all in this film; Moana has an island to save and creation to restore and needs no prince to complete her. Norah reminded me about the very basic Bechdel test for fiction or film, which this film passes – have at least two women characters who are named, and who talk to each other about something besides a man. (Sadly most films fail this test.)
This might be a new feature of my weekly Blue Theology posts – film reviews! Most ocean films are about disaster (Perfect Storm, Poseidon Adventure.) Disney has tried other ocean movies, like The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, sweet but so many inaccuracies, and such limited heroines, in my opinion. Moana is a treasure – dive in!