Like previous Disney musicals, Moana is a gorgeous film, with beautiful animation, cultural diversity, and phenomenal music. But underneath that story, there’s a subversion that catches the attention of those with an eye on theology, using Polynesian mythology in a way that is very reminiscent of The Fall itself.
Warning: This review will contain spoilers.
In the spirit of far too many Disney protagonists before her, Moana is the child of a great leader, destined to inherit the kingdom, but has her eyes set on the outside world. For her, all roads lead back to the ocean. Her father, however, is insistent that she must remain on the island. This sounds like familiar ground, and it is. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Frozen, among others, all have versions of this motif. This one does that idea better than most of those, largely because the music is so enthralling, the animation so gorgeous, and the Polynesian culture so intriguing. But this film also differs from others that have gone down its path in some very important ways. The first of those is in the initiation of the adventure itself. Because it is not for Moana’s own ambitions that she sets out, but an obligation to her people. There is a poison that is spreading throughout the world, a poison that will eventually kill her island and her people. Her father doesn’t listen to this (naturally; it is a Disney film, after all), so she’s forced to take things into her own hands and set out to heal the broken world. She does so with the blessing of her dying grandmother, as well as the ocean, which is itself a character in the film.
The story behind that broken world is a fascinating piece of both mythology and theology. Maui, a powerful demigod, broke the world when he stole the “eye” of the creator goddess. Taking that eye (which is a small gem) broke that world, due to how it angered the goddess. Ever since then, the world has been poisoned. Moana’s task, then, is to track down Maui, and get him to return the gem to the creation goddess, thus restoring the world. Some key differences between this story and Christian theology are apparent. The fact that it is a goddess and not a god, for example, as well as the fact that Maui and Moana themselves fix the problem (albeit with the ocean’s help), are not insignificant differences. However, the core of the story, that the world is poisoned because something sacred was taken, is itself a very Christian idea.
Character development, as well as mythology, touches on some important aspect of theology, as well. Let’s start with Maui. The demigod, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, is a blast of a caricature of The Rock himself. His boisterous personality and unrelenting self-referential humor adds a lot of great comical relief to the film (in addition to the rooster, who’s in top running for best animal sidekick).Maui, in all of his fun insanity, has a tragic past with his biological parents, and underneath his tough exterior, struggles with a deadly dichotomy of pride and self-doubt. He feels an obligation to fix of all his problems by himself (except for that one big one he’s running away from), and doesn’t think he can solve anything without his special fishhook. He’s arrogant with the fishhook, but hopeless without it. And like so many things that we try to depend on instead of God, that crutch reveals itself to be just that when things don’t work out like Maui planned, and he’s left with little more than his own two hands.
Now, herein lies the fatal flaw of the film. The answer to Maui’s dilemma (through Moana) is to have confidence in his own abilities. We do have a sort of stand-in for providence in the film (the ocean), but that’s not what Maui relies on, even though it is, in some ways, what Moana relies on. The answer, unlike the one the film gives, is not one of determination and self-sufficiency, but humility and dependence on the one who can do all things. So while the set-up of the problem is distinctly Christian in nature, the answer falls back on typical subpar answers of Christian culture.
Meanwhile, we have Moana. Maui’s character development in many ways takes up more thematic real estate (he is, after all, the one who caused this poisoning of the world), but Moana’s forms the greater driving force of the plot. Likely crafted to be an ideal female role model, she is strong, driven, dedicated, and selfless; all the things you need to be a good leader. Based on that description, the only thing she seems to lack is good skills to deal with the outside world, which Maui makes up for. But that lack becomes an important plot point. All of her interactions with Maui, particularly in the early part of the story, emphasize how over her head she is. That feeds into Moana’s true character conflict – she has all of the right motivations and all of the right ideas, but has none of the skills to make any of those ambitions happen. Maui’s broken crutch and Moana’s insecurity comes to a head in the same climax, but when this happens for Moana, she throws the gem back to the ocean and screams “Why did you choose me?!”
The significant thing here is that it is not Moana’s immense skill that gives her the power to heal the world. In the last moments of the conflict, it’s Moana’s discernment and compassion, not her self-determination, that gives the key to resolution. The ocean didn’t choose her because of her immense qualifications. In a sense, it’s almost like it chose her because of her lack of qualification, not in spite of it. This again has a theological parallel. Amos said that he was “neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet.” The twelve were mostly composed of fishermen. Only Paul seems to have been qualified for religious study, and even then his past mistakes clearly disqualified him in the eyes of many.
These parallels are quite striking. But Christianity is not the only religion reflected here. Polynesian mythology is the backdrop here, and that shows through. Maui is an actual figure of Polynesian mythology, one who is viewed as a cultural icon with both divine and human characteristics. In fact, much like the song “You’re Welcome,” there is a myth in which Maui subjugated the sun with a jawbone. So if you’re a parent, be prepared to have the discussions about these differences with your kids. We shouldn’t be afraid of these conversations. The similarities between the myths of other cultures and Christianity can be a powerful apologetic, and a compelling conversation starter.