Note: After reading his review of “Moana,” the author of this article invites you to learn more about “Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey into Joy and Healing,” a new book that compares the writings of C. S. Lewis with the music of U2 in a life-changing journey through grief, joy, and longing for God. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
Editor’s Note (10/17/18): A commenter left a link to a YouTube analysis of this film. As far as analyzing symbolism and themes, frankly the video does a better job than what I attempted in my review. You can view the video at this link or scroll down to the comments to find it. Initially, my intention with my review was to find general themes that might work as pivot points for someone to discuss Christ (i.e. outreach tools). The video analysis does a more accurate job of picking apart the symbolism and getting to the bottom of what the movie is trying to say.
First order of business: if you decide to see this movie, make sure you stay until the very end of the credits. It’s worth it.
Second order of business: I recently had the chance to interview one of the animators of “Moana”–and one of the most legendary animators in Disney history–Mark Henn. Read what he has to say about “Moana” here as he provides some behind-the-scenes perspective. I also quote him in this review because he is a Christian and he offers his take on how Christians might use “Moana” to spark edifying conversations.
Now let’s get into the review of “Moana,” which is certainly one of the most visually stunning and atmospheric animated movies ever made. What Disney did with its marvelous treatment of snow-winter-ice in “Frozen” they have done again here in “Moana” with its treatment of water-tropical-ocean-waves. As Disney animator Mark Henn told me over the phone in our interview, be prepared to bring your swim trunks when you go to theater because the water animation is so real you will want to jump into the screen.
Before we go any further, if you haven’t read my reviews before here is how my unorthodox structure works:
- If the movie is good, I talk about why in the “entertainment value” section.
- I dive into the worldview and deeper layers to explore what this film is saying. I sometimes veer off into related topics.
- I talk about how to “apply” the movie. I believe movies are meant for more than just disposable consumption, but they’re things we can take with us to make our lives better.
(You might say this style of film review is based loosely on the inductive method of study: observe, interpret, and apply.)
(Observations) Entertainment Value and Film Craft
“Moana,” as I mentioned, will knock you out of your theater seat with its dazzling water animation and its tropical textures. It feels as if you’ve returned from a vacation to Tahiti by the time the credits roll. “Moana” hits all the right notes and competes with “Frozen” for the title of Best Disney Animated Movie of the 2010s. It has wonderful songwriting in it (provided by the composer of the Broadway hit “Hamilton”), it has a likable, earnest heroine in Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), Dwayne Johnson ups the likable factor of the movie even more with his funny and impressive musical portrayal of Maui (Dwayne has one of the best songs, actually, if not the catchiest), and the film even has the hilarious animal side-kick that we’ve come to expect. (In “Frozen” the comic relief was Olaf. In “Moana” it’s a seriously unintelligent but hilarious chicken named Heihei.) On top of all that, Disney isn’t afraid to make fun of itself and some of its stereotypes it has developed over the decades (including making fun of itself for always requiring an animal sidekick in its princess movies).
So as far as entertainment value goes, you are getting your money’s worth with “Moana.” The animation alone is worth the ticket. Some of the oceanic water environment scenes are still playing in my mind’s eye. It was truly a captivating and magical immersion into the story’s setting.
(Interpretation) Worldviews, Deeper Layers of Meaning, Edifying Themes:
I asked Disney animator Mark Henn what Christians might find appealing in “Moana” and he said this:
That’s a good question. It’s dealing with the Oceana/Polynesian mythology, of their world and their culture. It’s hard to say, though I think the spiritual aspect of life is a big part of this film, and I think that will hopefully resonate with Christian audiences who know that we’re in the world but we’re not of the world because we have a spiritual realm that we deal with and we live in. I think it’s going to open up some areas for conversations and maybe kids asking questions. I think those are always healthy, always good [conversations], particularly for a Christian family–i.e. understanding who Maui is as a demigod in the Polynesian culture versus what we have in Christ and all that. I think those opportunities hopefully will be taken advantage of by parents to have talks with their kids.
I certainly agree with that assessment after seeing it. It’s based loosely on mythology, and there’s not an overt Christian theme or an obvious bridge of symbolism that connects the film with a specific Christian worldview. But it does place a valuable emphasis on the spiritual aspect of life that could be a conversation starter. For example, the ocean is a character in the film, and the ocean consciously guides Moana’s destiny in a god-like way. This constant theme throughout the movie could spark a conversation about God’s role in shaping our lives and influencing events–good or bad–in a positive way that advances His purposes in the earth.
This leads to another interesting element in this film, which my wife pointed out: Moana provides an edifying example of someone who is called to a destiny that is bigger than themselves and requires great sacrifice in order to save others. Moana–and Maui, for that matter–follow that narrative course in different ways. It’s an encouraging picture of a hero character being pulled out of the bubble of their own local interests and forced to take on a mission bigger and more important than themselves on behalf of others. This general theme could be another strong conversation starter.
I’ll be honest, my initial reaction about the film’s worldview was less positive. I saw “Moana” and its subtext as more of an epic anthem to the most popular religion of our post-Christian West: the gospel of self-fulfillment and its “follow your heart/create your own meaning” vacuum that has tried so hard in recent decades to experience something transcendent within the immanent–i.e. to have all the purpose-driven thrills of religion while maintaining a secular humanistic framework. In more specific philosophical terms, I’m referring to the religion called “expressive individualism” that people such as ultra-secular humanistic philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre helped tattoo across the heartstrings of modern Western culture in the twentieth century. Many things throughout “Moana” seem to point in that direction–from the symbolism of the villain in the film (won’t give any spoilers away about that), which provides a metaphor for “finding your true self,” to Moana’s nagging desire to buck authority and go beyond the reef.
But my wife convinced me that “Moana” actually points in the opposite direction if you look carefully. It’s true the movie seems to slather the Romanticism-inspired “follow your heart” mantras over everything in the beginning, but (and I won’t give anything away) as the story progresses it’s clear that she is really obeying–not disobeying–a higher authority and “calling” on her life to accomplish something that is A) bigger and more important than her life or her heart’s impulses; and B) all for the sake of others, not herself. These elements fly in the face of the core tenets of expressive individualism. In this way “Moana” actually has a general compatibility with a Christian’s calling to follow Christ: we are to lay aside our self-centeredness and surrender to a quest story that God has written for us that is bigger than our lives and is more about saving and helping others than it is about helping ourselves.
“Moana” fits that edifying theme quite nicely, actually, in a general way.
Conclusion (and Application): Another Spectacular Disney Animated/Musical Classic with Some Spiritually Edifying Themes (If You Put In a Little Work to Highlight Them)
Assuming you see the film’s use of mythology as window dressing for deeper themes and not something that immediately discounts it (and assuming you’re not offended by characters having/getting tattoos), “Moana” does two good things for a Christian moviegoer. (Most of my audience is Christian, which is why I keep focusing on them).
First: the film provides them a compelling story and visual spectacle they won’t soon forget. It’s certainly worth the price of admission.
Lastly: although it is not overtly Christian, it offers some general themes that can easily lead into some fascinating conversations if you put in a little work to highlight some of the subtle spiritual themes. And the film is an excellent reminder that Christians should take their callings seriously and pursue it with all their hearts even if it is a difficult journey and comes at great risk or cost.
In other words, the selfless courage of Moana is something we should emulate; and, in a general way, “Moana” reminds us that we should let our mission in Christ and God’s calling over our lives define our identity, not our circumstances or failures.
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Content advisory for this PG film…
Note: The parental guidance content advisory is written from a Christian worldview. I am a person of faith with orthodox Christian beliefs like those expressed in “The Everlasting Man” by G. K. Chesterton, “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, and “The Pursuit of God” by A. W. Tozer. That being said, I do not believe that the depiction of evil, even graphic depictions of evil or negative themes in films, is in itself always immoral. I believe it depends on the context and the worldview behind the film’s depiction of evil. All that being said, I try to report the content that gives the film its rating so that you can make an informed decision about viewing the film. Some people need to know detailed information about the content, some do not, in order to make a decision. I try to provide enough detail to give you a sense of the nature of the content. If you need more detail to make a better decision, I recommend visiting PluggedIn.com, as they provide extremely detailed reports of a movie’s content.
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality: None.
Crude humor: Maui talks about being struck “in the butt cheek” by a poison dart. A character pees in the water so that it floats downstream and warms another character’s hand as a prank.
Violence/Gore/Scary/Disturbing Content: Maui fights a giant lava monster, and deep sea monsters attack a character and each other. (In one case, a monster swallows whole another monster and cuts off their tongue in the process.) A huge crab tries to eat a human. A character jokes about human sacrifice to frighten another character in a comical way. A character gets crushed by a wave and thrown against coral. An old woman is seen weak and fragile on her death bed. The giant lava villain is a bit frightening. In general, the film is on par with “Brave” as far as the scare factor. It’s darker and a little scarier than “Frozen,” but if your child can handle “Brave” and its intense bear scenes, for example, then your child can handle “Moana.”
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.