As I slowly but surely make my way through gleaning the religious metaphors across every film in the Disney animated canon (I’m coming for you, The Black Cauldron!), 2016’s Moana finds its way onto the docket. It might be really fun to just spend 500 words going over Moana’s little Moses moment in the climax, but I think that there’s an even deeper conversation to be had with this film.
Like many movies of quality before it, Moana finds itself victim to the plot-hole nitpickery of internet jokes. With this film, a lot of viewers have clung to the refrain of “why didn’t the ocean just put the heart back in itself?”
The film actually does address this in the text through a conversation Moana has with Maui. Just before their first encounter with Te Ka, Maui makes the observation that by selecting a human emissary to return the heart, this person can lead out their nation back out to the ocean where they can resume their old voyaging ways. If the ocean took care of business on its own, Moana and her people would have continued to hang around Motonui without ever touching the world beyond the reef.
But it’s more than simply what the ocean is hoping Moana will do for her people, it’s what the ocean is hoping Moana will do for herself. Through her journey, Moana has come to learn that she possesses the qualities of a true leader, and can only develop these traits so far as long as she’s grounded on her island. There’s a real power in the scene in which Moana comes to realize that she has effectively become the hero she admired. Why would the ocean deny her that by taking away her hero’s quest?
Because the ocean in this film is treated like a deity, this same question carries over: why does God leave to mortals what he can do himself?
I don’t usually go into details about my own specific religious denomination on here to try to keep things accessible for everyone, but there is a quote from a former leader of my own faith that has always resonated with me. In his book, The Teachings of Thomas S Monson, the late prophet outlines, “God left the world unfinished for man to work his skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. He left the rivers unbridged, the forests unfelled and the cities unbuilt. God gives to us the challenge of raw materials, not the ease of finished things. He leaves the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that we might know the joys and glories of creation.” To that, I might add, “the glories of exploration.”
God can raise mountains and topple towers, but the one thing he can’t do–or perhaps, the one thing he elects not to do–is carve out character for his mortal offspring. To do so would deny us one of the greatest gifts of all, that of self-actualization. It’s always up to us to become the people we need to be. He only provides us opportunities, and spiritual guidance if we’ll take it, for us to achieve our own divine potential.