on moana, the old testament, and the power of good story

In general, I don’t enjoy watching films very much. My friends will be the first to tell you that when “movie night” is the hang-out activity of choice, I will do all I can to avoid it, stay busy, or try to get people to do something else with me. Since most films have been made for the purpose of cheap entertainment or money-grabbing, they come with plot holes, cliches, unnecessary details, and gross artisanal oversight. Even films with good artistic intentions can have enough flaws in craftsmanship to launch me out of the storytelling experience and leave me feeling like I wasted 2 hours of precious time.

Because of this, I didn’t watch “Moana” when it was out in theatres. I like watching Disney films as much as the next person, but “Tangled” and “Frozen” left me feeling “meh” enough to not want to spend a ton of extra money on the big-screen experience. I resolved to watch it when it was easily accessible on a platform I already paid for. Even when “Moana” was made available on Netflix this past June, I didn’t get around to watching it until about mid-July.

To quickly sum up my feelings, I very much regret not seeing it in theatres. “Moana” is the first Disney movie in a long time to feel like a proper Disney animated film. The writing is rife with the genuine sense of adventure and heart that marks other Disney classics, and the lush, detailed animation feels nearly lifelike at times.

However, the thing that took me most by surprise was not the high-quality writing or the detailed graphics, but how close the story, specifically the music, ended up striking my heart. At the climax of the film, as Moana realizes where the Heart of Te Fiti belongs, she sings a reprise version of the song heard when she met the ocean for the first time at the very beginning of the film. I did not understand why, but the first time I heard it, I nearly broke down in tears. It felt so powerful to me how the quiet song of the sea was now being sung again as the way to ground Te Ka and bring Te Fiti back to life.

The emotion of that moment stuck with me, and made me realize the beauty of the purposefulness in the songwriting and arranging. That song Moana sang, “Know Who You Are”, is the back half of one of three musical bookends, marking the conclusion of the film and its story by its reflection of the beginning song, “An Innocent Warrior”. The other two bookends are the opening song “Tulou Tagaloa” and its reprise “Voyager Tagaloa”, and the song “We Know The Way” and its reprise at the very close of the film.

Upon looking at the translations of the Samoan songs “An Innocent Warrier” and “Tulou Tagaloa”, we see just how much each of the three bookends establish and reaffirm each of their presented themes and the themes seen throughout all of “Moana”. “Tulou Tagaloa”, the song heard during the opening credits of the film, is sung to the highest deity of Polynesian culture, the creator Tagaloa, and says;

“Pardon us…
Pardon us…
Oh Tagaloa.

Look down
Upon our world
Look down
Upon our world.
The light
[I stand before you]
It is good and beautiful
[My desire (homesickness)]
Look down
[The journey has begun]
At how beautiful our lives are.”

“An Innocent Warrior”, the song sung when Moana first meets the ocean, is translated to;

“Your eyes so full of wonder
Your heart, an innocent warrior
My dearest one
There’s a task for you
Let it flow over you
The freedom you feel
And your deep thoughts
Our young girl
Have you come
Our young girl
Your eyes so full of wonder”

It was after looking up these translations that I realized just how much “Moana” reflected common themes found throughout the stories of the Old Testament. Whether it be Abraham, Gideon, Elijah, or Hosea, the great prophets and followers of God all have a similar tale to tell; they were all called by God to accomplish a specific task for his people for their overall benefit. This great call was the thing that pulled them through every adversity, allowing them to conquer every doubt, fear, and enemy that stood between them in order to complete their divinely ordained end goal.

In the story of “Moana”, we find a story constructed in almost exactly the same way as any of those ancient tales. A young girl, divinely chosen by the high creator, is given a task to perform in order to set her people right again. In the fullness of time, she begins to set out to accomplish that task, finding doubt in the ocean and in herself to be constant companions along the way, causing even the creator’s chosen one to question the legitimacy of her entire journey. And yet, in the face of all of this, she chooses to trust the call that was given to her, carrying out her task to its fullest and allowing her people the freedom to commune with the ocean as they once did so long ago.

This story arc, unspoken and undefined but communicated through a tight cohesion of visual and auditory storytelling, is what spoke to me on such a guttural level. As a Christian, I know in very real terms what it’s like to feel called out to by an incredible God that I am drawn to so deeply. I know what it’s like to feel that relationship so strongly and tangibly at some times, but at other times doubt everything about ever experiencing it. And to see someone, anyone be able to not only pull through that adversity, but fully accomplish everything that was set before them fills me with such passion and hope that it leaves me breathless.

That breathlessness is the power of good story. It is the same power that makes telling and retelling all of those Old Testament recordings so important to the Christian walk. You could tell a person that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. You could even summarize the experiences of Christians long past and present them as clear evidences of God’s faithfulness. But through the power of artistry and craftsmanship in storytelling, these truths can spring to life in astonishing ways, allowing emotion and empathy to carry them to the most raw and primal parts of the human soul. That is why good writing matters. That is why thought-through visuals matter. That is why the arrangement of six songs in a bookend formation poetically written in both English and Samoan to tie together a story based in Polynesian mythology matters.

“Moana” may not exactly be a Christian story. But it is a well-done story, told with excruciating care and attention to detail. And I have found that when it comes to catching the sparkle of God’s truth in media, whether it be found in ancient Hebrew texts or in a big-budget Disney blockbuster, it may be all that matters.

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