Hero for our times
A reflection on Walt Disney’s Moana
By Amy Uelmen
Amidst scandals and crimes, many once-beloved and revered leaders and personalities have been toppled from their pedestals. As once-trusted institutions crumble under the weight of their own corruption, it is not surprising that young adults are sometimes reluctant to take on leadership positions. Who wants to risk judgment or misunderstanding when weaknesses are put under a microscope?
Yet there are times when people do step up to bring their particular courage, insight and skills to a difficult mission. As Mordecai prodded Queen Esther into action during a time of persecution, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
Disney’s Moana is a wonderful commentary on leadership for “such a time as this.” The drama begins against the backdrop of an ecological crisis. The demigod Maui had stolen the heart of the ocean goddess Te Fiti to give humans power over creation, but the ensuing imbalance has wreaked environmental havoc. Who would be up to the task of convincing Maui to return the heart?
“Why did the ocean choose me?” the teenage heroine Moana asks herself periodically during her journey. One answer is portrayed in an opening scene of Moana as a toddler choosing to help a baby sea turtle to safety over collecting beautiful shells. In the regal anointing that follows, the ocean recedes to offer her its gifts. Contemplating the majestic scene of the teeming life and beauty that lies beneath its ocean’s surface, Moana no longer needs to collect anything. It is then that the current propels the shiny green stone that represents the heart of Te Fiti toward her open hand.
To see how consistent is Moana’s disposition to put the weak and vulnerable over her own interests, it is enough to follow the character of Hei Hei, a rooster that is so cognitively impaired that he cannot even orient his pecking to the food in front of him. More than once, Moana risks everything — her own safety and her focus on their mission — in order to rescue or protect Hei Hei.
If attention to the vulnerable, a capacity to keep greed in check, and a contemplative spirit attentive to beauty and to harmony in nature are all valued qualities in our future leaders, we may be in good shape.
These qualities are further emphasized by the stark contrast with the film’s antihero, the giantcrab Tamatoa. Mocking Moana in the song “Shiny,” he is obsessed with hoarding anything that might contribute to his appearance of being large and shimmery, so as to attract and consume the fish who are so “dumb, dumb, dumb,” as to move toward anything that glitters.
One of the most hopeful aspects of the film is how human fragility is woven into the experience of leadership, especially as Moana also journeys into the depths of her own limits. In a particularly moving scene, the ghost of Moana’s grandmother appears on her boat right at the moment she is tempted to give up. “I tried, Grandma, I couldn’t do it.” Her grandmother responds: “It’s not your fault; I never should have put so much on your shoulders. If you are ready to go home, I will be with you.” It is not superhuman strength or resolve that gives Moana the capacity to reclaim her mission, but the assurance of a love that is not tied to the successful fulfillment of a task.
This love also helps Moana to value the scars of the journey that “heal and reveal” her true identity and reconnect with the “quiet voice still inside” that confirms her mission. Prior to this moment she had stuck to a rehearsed script, but that now gives way to a passionate personal narrative about who she is and how she will respond to her call.
Moana’s assigned guide for the journey is Maui, drained of his powers after he had stolen the heart. He too journeys into the depths of his own wounds, grounded in rejection by his mortal parents. What motivates Maui to go beyond the loss of his shapeshifting power in order to face certain danger? Perhaps in dialogue with his tattoos that depict the movements of his conscience, he realizes that he cares more about Moana’s safety and righting his own misdeeds than about shortcomings in his performance of a demigod.
From recent accounts of skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression in teenagers and young adults, there seems to be a little Moana, Maui, or even Tamatoa inside many, struggling to break free from a paralyzing fear of failure or excessive concern about appearances. As we search the horizon for models of leadership, we could all take a cue from the grandmother’s unconditional love, so as to encourage them to contact that “quiet voice still inside” that will lead them to discover with integrity and peace the heroic qualities to which they are called.
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