How “Moana” Expands the Multicultural Gospel of Disney

Disney’s “Moana” heroine is a spirited Polynesian girl played by Auli'i Cravalho. Dwayne Johnson, who is half Samoan, plays Maui. (Image courtesy of Disney Studios)
Disney’s “Moana” heroine is a spirited Polynesian girl played by Auli’i Cravalho. Dwayne Johnson, who is half Samoan, plays Maui. (Image courtesy of Disney Studios)

For more than 70 years, Walt Disney Studios has been one of the most effective purveyors of faith and values to the nation’s — and arguably the world’s — young children.

Disney’s full-length animated features have presented a consistent, optimistic gospel: If you believe in yourself, and appeal to a power greater than yourself for help, then good will always triumph over evil.

Walt Disney, who called himself a Christian but rarely attended church, always downplayed explicit religious symbolism in his animated features, preferring magic as an instrument of supernatural intervention. Think wishing upon a star, or relying on a fairy godmother. That, in essence, reflects what the 20th-century social philosopher Will Herberg called America’s secular, “civic religion” — faith in faith.

“It is not faith in anything  (in particular) that is so powerful,” Herberg wrote, “just faith, the ‘magic of believing.’”

With its new full-length, animated feature, “Moana,” Disney Studios expands the ethnic and religious diversity in its heroines, in this case with a spirited Polynesian girl played by Auli’i Cravalho, who is a native Hawaiian. The film is the latest in the lucrative princess franchise that began in 1937 with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and was enhanced over the decades with films like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella.”

“Moana” finished No. 1 at the box for the third weekend in a row, earning $145 million since opening over the Thanksgiving weekend.

This suggests that the movie, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe award, will remain in theaters through the Christmas holidays, and become the likely default choice for families with youngsters.

Reviewers and cultural critics have noted that “Moana” represents the continuing evolution of Disney’s template for female heroines. Like her more recent predecessors — Merida in “Brave,” Elsa in “Frozen” — the title character of “Moana” is portrayed as a proto-feminist princess who acts, rather than being acted upon, and who doesn’t need to marry a prince to find redemption or validation.

Significantly, the character Moana — the film’s “chosen one” — is also non-Christian as well as non-Caucasian, thus broadening the religious spectrum presented in Disney’s world.

The narrative is built around traditional Polynesian cosmology, starting with the islanders’ ancient origin story, in which the island goddess Te Fiti created all life.

The demigod Maui, a brawny, extravagantly tattooed shape-shifter and trickster with a magical fishhook, sings and speaks about how he “lassoed the sun,” and gave Polynesian mortals fire, as well as their island homes.

Dwayne Johnson, who is half Samoan, plays Maui. In the trailer running in theaters, he says that indigenous experts and storytellers consulted by the film’s writers and directors have made it “a cultural showcase.”

Moana and Maui have to travel across the sea as wave-riding navigators, to return Te Fiti’s glowing heart, which Maui stole years before. His theft turned the goddess into a slumbering, sacred island, and the resulting curse has caused the fish to flee the waters around Moana’s island and its coconuts to spoil. To return the heart and lift the curse, the pair must first do battle with another figure in the Polynesian pantheon, Te Ka, the Lava Witch. An apparition of her dead grandmother inspires Moana’s quest.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
(Mark I. Pinsky is author of “The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust”)

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