(Guest post by Greg Forster)
I am a girl who loves my island; I am the girl who loves the sea
It calls me!
I am the daughter of the village chief; we are descended from voyagers who found their way across the world
They call me!
I have delivered us to where we are; I have journeyed farther; I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me!
This delightful movie speaks, not always clearly but always movingly, to some of the central tensions of advanced modern life. We need both tradition and discovery; we need both inner-looking integrity and outward-looking responsibility. Ultimately, we need God, who alone can transcend and reconcile these contradictory needs, sweeping aside the artifical barriers we create to divide them for our own purposes.
I’m not sure what’s more amazing, that a movie this good has four directors, or that two of them are the directors of The Little Mermaid – the high water mark of the Bad Old Disney – yet the occasional intrusions of Bad Old Disney thinking are actually swept up and incorporated (probably against rather than according to the directors’ purposes) into a whole that is very much of the New Disney, the Disney that cares about the transcendent.
Only very general spoilers follow, nothing highly specific. But if you intend to see the movie, better to set this aside and come back when you’ve seen it.
“When It’s Time to Find Home, We Know the Way”: Tradition and Discovery
Moana is raised in a closed, tradition-bound society but longs to explore and discover, which she can only do by leaving her island behind. We, living in an open, scientific society, long for stable sources of identity, meaning and purpose, which is why we like to watch movies that take place in ancient times and places, when people knew who they were.
If this had been a Bad, Old Disney movie, the lesson would have been that “tradition” is either a bad thing or, at best, something that must bow the knee to the Brave New World and the quest for knowledge and discovery that will inevitably marginalize tradition. (Remember the great modernist quip in Sleeping Beauty: “After all, this is the fourteenth century!”)
Not here. Moana discovers that her traditionalist father has withheld from her the elements of the tradition that favor exploration and discovery – he has suppressed the part of the tradition that is anti-traditionalist. She discovers that her ancestors were voyagers who explored the world and colonized the empty islands as they found them.
“We are explorers reading every sign,” sing her ancestors, but also: “We tell the stories of our elders in a neverending chain!”
“We set a course to find a brand new island everywhere we roam” but “when it’s time to find home, we know the way!”
“We know where we are, we know who we are!”
Traditions embody commitments that are not themselves traditional, or at least not tradition-bound. The village didn’t just sprout up on the island; the villagers came from somewhere.
In the Bad, Old Disney, tradition was simply a relic to be surpassed by the great voyage of discovery. Here, the voyagers have a tradition – voyaging is the tradition – and it tells them who and where they are.
Her father has suppressed all this because a new danger appeared on the ocean; like all traditionalists, he thinks safety is to be found by retreat into a closed system of tradition. But traditions themselves speak against this; they point outside themselves to the higher things that traditions exist to serve.
Traditionalists always want to burn the boats. But it was our ancestors who made them.
“I Am Moana”: Identity and Purpose
We need tradition because we need identity (“we know who we are”). We need discovery because we need purpose, a calling to which we aspire (“it calls me”). But it’s hard to hold on to both.
Identity requires an inward movement toward integrity, in the literal sense of that term – we need wholeness, a fitting together of all our pieces into a sum greater than the parts.
Purpose requires an outward movement toward responsibility – we need to be called out of ourselves, to serve something higher than ourselves.
Identity without purpose is narcissistic. Purpose without identity destroys our humanity.
The moment of greatest crisis, which I will not reveal, comes when Moana can no longer attach the person she is to the calling for which she has been chosen. The crisis is resolved when an outward calling brings her to an inward realization of their connectedness.
As I’ve said, there’s some intrusion of the Bad, Old Disney in Moana. It comes in the form of “look inside yourself,” “follow your heart,” “be who you are on the inside,” etc.
But here, that language – which remains dangerous – is used in the service of higher things. “Look inside yourself” is playing with fire, but as Moana shows, it is (to borrow a fine phrase from Allan Bloom) fire with which we must play if we are to transcend it.
Family is part of the answer. This is one of those rare (but less rare than they used to be) Disney movies with an intact family at the center. And it is noteworthy that her father, her mother and her grandmother are all necessary to Moana’s story. Without any one of them, the story either wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t happen the way it should.
In the family, both identity and purpose are provided for. Your family loves you and wants you to be a person with wholeness, but also calls you out of yourself to the service of others – at first, the others within your family, but ultimately the community at large.
The unconditional love of the family is essential. One of the lessons of the movie is that efforts to earn love and acceptance are futile; the love and acceptance thus “earned” are not authentic love and acceptance.
However, the family is not enough. A greater love is required.
Moana’s grandmother passes on to her the suppressed part of the tradition, and clarifies for her the calling for which she was chosen, because and only because a higher power to which the grandmother is devoted has provided for her to do so.
“The Ocean Doesn’t Help You”: The Mystery of Divine Calling
Darkness is rising and monsters have appeared because we sought to steal from the gods the power of creation itself.
To redeem the world, the ocean has chosen Moana for a high and dangerous quest. If anyone else attempts to stop her, the ocean intervenes to keep a path to her quest open for her.
Moana herself, however, the one who has been chosen for the calling, can refuse the calling if she chooses.
At first there’s no question what she will choose, because the outward calling that comes to her from the ocean connects so clearly to the inward calling she senses inside herself, that she understands to be the true center of her identity.
But then comes suffering and failure. And the ocean doesn’t help. If the ocean wants these things done, why doesn’t it help?
“The ocean doesn’t help you” says the unwise man, “you help yourself.”
That turns out to be empty. When the unwise man gets wiser, he says of his efforts to help himself: “It was never enough.”
It never is. But the ocean still doesn’t help.
At first, the divine call resolves our tensions – by its transcendent authority it supercedes and breaks down our artificial divisions between tradition and discovery, between identity and purpose. It demands both; because, and only because, it demands both with an authority higher than both, it gets both.
But then the ocean doesn’t help.
At the end of all things, Moana is left floating alone on a raft at night, in the middle of nowhere, unable to find the path to her quest.
She has been chosen for the calling, but she can refuse the calling if she chooses.
She faces the same question she thought she had left behind her: “Moana, do you know who you are?”
The divine call, coming to her from outside, has not resolved that question. She must resolve it inwardly. She must – dare I say it – look inside herself.
Not for narcissistic self-expression but to discover who it is that the ocean is really calling.
And what she discovers leads to a surprising redemption.