Mulling over Movies: Moana, Pt. 2 by Elise M. Edwards

elise-edwardsEvery summer in the US, movie theatres show their newest big budget films, hoping to draw in large audiences. While I appreciate an air-conditioned theatre on a hot day, I love the opportunity to go to an outdoor movie screening.  These screenings are usually community-oriented opportunities for social gathering.  In my previous post, I talked about Moana, a Disney film I saw at an outdoor screening earlier this summer.  I enjoyed watching this movie with my friends and their families and I was delighted by the story itself.  It has several religious and spiritual themes and strong female characters. Previously, I spoke of the significance of myths in this movie.  Today, I’m focused on depictions of nature in Moana and their remarkable beauty.

Many feminist and womanist theologians and religion scholars have raised concerns about the interrelated dominations of women and nature, as well as the disproportionate hardships women and children are exposed to with increasing climate change and environmental degradation.  Our changing environment affects all life on the planet, but it is the people who are most vulnerable (physically, economically, politically) who at most at risk.  Obviously, animals and plants are endangered, too. Ethicists like me are interested in finding ways to address these concerns because we are committed the preservation of life.  As feminists, there’s more to it, though.  We recognize the way nature itself is often feminized (“Mother Nature”), which makes it even more troubling when it is cultivated without respect for the wellbeing of existing ecosystems and the life forces dependent upon them.

It is notable then, that the myth at the center of Moana’s story—the backstory that prompts our title character to begin her heroic journey—is about a violation of land depicted in a feminine form.  At one level, the arc of the plot is about a young woman and a demi-god who actively try to set things right.  And at another level, the story is about nature’s own participation in its regeneration and restoration.  Moana sings:

See the light where the sky meets the sea

It calls me

The light and the sea have tremendous power.  Have they ever called you?  In many religious traditions around the world, nature is sacred or it possesses a divine energy.  In Christianity, we are taught that God created the world, and that God declares it good.  I think most Christians believe this goodness was corrupted by sin, which is perhaps why so many are suspicious of nature.  Or perhaps we are desensitized to it, so removed from it in our industrialized lives that we view nature as a commodity.  We should remember that the natural world is alive and that we, too, are a part of it.  The power of nature can legitimately inspire fear, but it should also move us to honor, respect, and care for it.

The sacred energy of nature and love for it was brought to the big screen so remarkably in Moana.  I was thoroughly enchanted by the way that natural elements were rendered.  Animals, flora, and fauna were all vividly drawn and truly animated.  As my friend and I watched on the big screen, we marveled at the way the sea moved and shimmered.  If you didn’t know we were sitting on a picnic blanket in the middle of a football field, you might have thought were gazing at the real thing.  “Look at how beautiful the water is!” we exclaimed.

The skill of Moana’s animators is undeniable.  Moana utilized computer generated images and digital animation techniques, but it was done so artistically that the images seemed to come alive.  You can find a book celebrating the art here.  The artists who envisioned and wrote and brought the images to the screen and set them to music helped me see the beauty and vivacity of a world so far removed from my own.

Good art does not try to replace the real experience of something, but it does aim to shift our view of it.  No one should mistake the fictional world of Moana’s characters for actual Polynesian cultures.  Likewise, the grandeur of the oceans may be breathtaking on-screen, but it is even more awesome in person.  And yet, I know that seeing this movie has changed the way I will experience the sea.  Will I marvel at the life within it?  Will I be able to see something of the Creator in it?  Will I ache for its pollution and my complicity in it?

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or

Author: Elise M. Edwards

I am a Lecturer at Baylor University and a registered architect in the State of Florida. My academic and professional career is interdisciplinary. I work between the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express various commitments of their communities.

10 thoughts on “Mulling over Movies: Moana, Pt. 2 by Elise M. Edwards”

  1. Elise, thanks so much for telling us about this movie and thanks for your thoughtful analysis of it. After I read your first post on Moana I watched the movie and I loved it!


  2. Your original essay prompted me to rent the Disney film. (We have a large screen & a projector.) In looking for that on Netflix, I discovered a film by the same name. It has been described as a docufiction from 1926 (watch instantly) Since it had been directed by the man who did “Nanuck of the North”, I began wonder about how much of it was as staged as “Nanuck” had been. (I watched it this “Moana” & thought that it was very interesting, with even better music than the Disney version, whose music I found to be mediocre.) I did further research, & found an essay by The Smithsonian. In reading it, I discovered that Maui was a very powerful god, who was paired with a powerful goddess!

    “In Polynesian lore, the association of a powerful goddess with a mighty god creates symmetry which
    gives rise to harmony, and above all, beauty in the stories,” he says. It was Hina who enabled Maui to do
    many of the feats he uncharacteristically brags about in the film’s song “You’re Welcome!”

    The power and glory of this goddess is beautifully presented in the poem “I am Hine, I am Moana” by Tina
    Ngata, a New Zealand Māori educator.” (Can be found on YouTube)

    This was not included in the Disney version at all. Hmmm.

    Even so, the Disney”Moana” was fun & beautiful. But, you just never know what will lead you to what!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Thank you for looking into it! We all benefit from your research! I can’t wait to see the poem.


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