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.’”
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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.”
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.
Walt Disney’s early, unbroken parade of white, implicitly Christian princesses began to change in the 1990s, under new leaders like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and has continued more recently, under Robert Iger.
The studio’s princess palette embraced multiculturalism, featuring other faith traditions and ethnicities. “Aladdin,” and “Pocahontas” demonstrated that it was no longer necessary to be European to be a Disney princess. (The studio’s first Latina princess, “Elena of Avalor,” is featured in a new Disney Channel series.)
Given that Disney’s target audience for its animated features tends to be children who ultimately watch them repeatedly on home videos and listen to the songs on CDs, the impact of “Moana” in mainstream Christian, Jewish and secular homes is likely to be considerable.
Through the title characters in “Mulan” and (in male form) “Brother Bear,” Disney animators introduced young viewers to the elements of Confucianism and shamanism.
In another breakthrough, “The Princess and the Frog” presented an African-American princess, an adherent of Voodoo/Santeria. Not coincidentally, the co-directors of “Moana,” Ron Clements and John Musker, also worked on “Aladdin” and “The Princess and the Frog.”
To be sure, the new movie’s presentation of Polynesian beliefs as lighthearted entertainment puts in sharp relief how some religions’ origin narratives are taken seriously and considered sacred – regardless of how far-fetched – while others are seen as amusing mythology, or folklore, and thus diminished.
There has also been some Internet grumbling that the Polynesian beliefs in “Moana” are blandly nonspecific, blending a number of Oceania’s faith traditions, and in the process diluting them. But if the price of this inclusion is to present this faith tradition in a Disneyfied, homogenized version, it is at least another small step for teaching tolerance and cultural ecumenism.
(Mark I. Pinsky is author of “The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust”)