Pastor Scott Summers
Student & Young Adult Pastor, Shiloh Community Church
Despite the title, I want to start with the disclaimer that I really enjoyed the movie Moana. I think Disney did well to break its trend of romance-driven storylines for a princess (to which Moana would say, “I’m not a princess, I’m a daughter of the chief”), and I also applaud them for dealing with the thought that the world is not as it should be. And yet…Moana should’ve died. I came to this realization after doing a Film and Theology night with the students over the summer. The symbolism (which I will walk you through as well) is super rich, and yet it leaves you wanting more. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, it’s on Netflix, so check it out (maybe do that before you read the rest of this if you don’t like spoilers).
The movie starts off with the beginning of time, within the context of the polytheistic theology of Samoan culture (as presented by Disney). In the beginning there were the primary deities (the ocean and the goddess Te Fiti), from which all life came forth. People were created to be in perfect harmony with the ocean and Te Fiti, and found their identity as voyagers sailing across the ocean to find new lands. Then man became prideful. Maui, the demigod who represented the best of humanity (and therefore humanity itself) stole the heart of Te Fiti in order to give the power to create life to all of mankind. This caused a curse (represented by a darkness) to spread across the world, unleashing aquatic beasts to dominate the ocean, and ultimately severing the relationship between man and the deities. Mankind lost its identity as voyagers, and the world was not as it should be. But one day, as it is foretold, the chosen one would save everyone.
To me, this sounds very similar to this book I’ve read. In the beginning God creates everything including man. He gave us identity and purpose and life was good with Him. Then man became prideful and desired to be like God. Adam and Eve rebelled and brought the curse of sin and death that the whole world now suffers from. Relationship with God was broken, identity was lost, and the world was not as it should be. But one day, the Messiah would come to save everyone who would believe in Him. Now I’m not sure how well Disney represented the Samoan theology, but I imagine it’s not far off thematically, as I believe this story is written on everyone’s heart in a veiled way. Even those who don’t know God understand that there’s something missing, that this world needs fixing, and that their hearts and lives need something…They need a savior.
For this movie, the savior character is Moana. She was the chosen one (chosen by the ocean) to bring the much-needed healing to her world. Her name “Moana” even means “ocean” in the Hawaiian language, possibly to even signify her as deity. Moana embarked on a mission to bring this restoration, which she believed would be accomplished by Maui, the one who caused the destruction in the first place. They both discover, however, that this was the wrong plan. She overcame great odds to bring Maui to Te Fiti, but they failed in their attempt at restoration, and were defeated by the lava monster “Te Ka.” It’s only through the second attempt, where Moana was the one who restored the heart, that she healed mankind’s relationship with Te Fiti and the ocean, recovered her people’s identity as voyagers, and reversed the curse of the darkness.
Again, the similarities are pretty uncanny. Mankind (Maui) could not save themselves; it was only the savior character, Moana, chosen by the ocean (deity) and foretold in prophecy, who would be the one to make things right. There are other secondary-plots in this movie, but this main one seems to point to God’s Word except in one glaringly obvious way. In the act of restoration near the end of the movie, Moana walks across the parted sea (again, yay symbolism) to place the heart in Te Ka’s chest (who then transformed back into the goddess Te Fiti), and then all was made right. It was simply too easy, and even pretty boring for a climax. There’s no sacrifice. There’s no pain, or suffering, or any real challenge even. She just walks over to Te Ka, puts the little stone in it’s chest, and ta-da…world saved!
You see, the the writers don’t understand these two things: the magnitude of sin, and consequently the cost it took to overcome it. Moana’s portrayal of the curse was accurate in part (darkness, destructive unto death, far-reaching), except it seemed much too external in nature, and even made the people out to be innocent victims. In reality, sin is the most destructive force on the planet, its reach is unlimited in that it affects everyone and everything in this world, and no one is an innocent victim.
As for the cost to defeat it, there was nothing easy about it! It took Jesus (the one and only God) dying on a cross after being brutally tortured to save His people. He never sinned, but out of obedience to the Father and love for the people He created He went through with the unimaginable. The emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual suffering that He endured was far more than we can comprehend. And after it was finished, He still proved to be more powerful than sin and death in His resurrection.
What makes Moana such a good movie, is that it symbolizes (likely unintentionally) the true narrative of world history (found in the Bible) on many points. Everyone longs for the truth, and when a filmmaker makes those connections, it draws us into the story in a special way. I’m not suggesting that as a secular company Disney should have made the savior character more Christ-like; how could they represent Him if they don’t know Him? What I am saying is that their lackluster redemptive climax is such because it deviates from the real-life redemption found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. To rip off the Biblical narrative on so many levels only to fall completely flat at redemption is just dissatisfying. Personally speaking, Moana should’ve died.