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Monday, December 5, 2016

I Didn't Like the Ocean in "Moana" Because it was Too Much Like God

The ocean gives Moana a high-five. Image source.
[content note: spoilers for the movie "Moana"]

I saw the new Disney movie "Moana" and it was so cool. It's about Moana, who is the daughter of a chief on an island in the Pacific. The animation was amazing, and Moana is TOTALLY a Disney princess. Like, she sings a song from the genre "society says my life is supposed to be a certain way, but I have way bigger dreams than that." You can't get much more Disney-princess than that.

This movie involves Moana and Maui (Maui is a demigod) sailing around to various islands, so a lot of the scenes take place on the ocean. And in this movie, the ocean is actually a character. Sometimes, the water moves in ways that defy physics, because the ocean wants to help Moana. It's able to pick things up, throw water at people, and sometimes a blob of water just rises up like a big tentacle and nods at Moana when she talks to it.

I was really uncomfortable with that, because it was way too much like the version of God I used to believe in.


The ocean is all around her, all the time, and usually it behaves in a completely normal way. If physics would predict a wave to move this way or that way, that's exactly what it does. No signs of any higher intelligence. And yet, occasionally the water does move in miraculous ways, for the purpose of helping Moana. Seems like it would be possible, hypothetically, for the water to always move intelligently like that, to make it obvious that it's helping her and she can rely on it. But no, that's not what it does. Only sometimes.

Just like God. I believed in a God who is so incredibly powerful, who can do pretty much anything, who is always all around us, who frequently intervenes in the world to help people. Except most of the time, everything just looks normal. Most of the time, God doesn't intervene. Sure, God could intervene at any second. It's totally, completely possible that God could speak to you out of nowhere, or magically transport you somewhere, or move things in ways that defy physics- it could happen at any second, and yet, very very rarely does anyone claim to have actually witnessed anything like that.

The water could, at any moment, move intelligently in ways that make Moana's task way easier. But it does so only rarely. Why? We're supposed to believe that the ocean cares about her and wants to help her- and yet, the ocean does so little. Why? Same question about God.

There was one part, where Moana is out on the ocean in a storm, and her canoe flips over and she can't get it turned rightside-up again. She calls out to the ocean for help, but there's no answer. The storm keeps being stormy. Nothing happens which defies the laws of physics. In the next scene, we see that Moana and her boat have drifted onto an island. She gets up, very angry that the ocean didn't help her- until she realizes, this is the island she was trying to find in the first place. So actually the ocean did help her, just in, ahem, mysterious ways.

Wow. As an ex-evangelical, I was very very uncomfortable with that part. It's way too much like the theology that says God causes bad things to happen to us because actually, even though we think those things are bad, in the end there is a result that's good. So we're not allowed to be mad at God.

That's just ridiculous, that God would behave that way. Let's say, for example, that God causes you to lose your job, but then later you end up with a new job that's better. And this abusive theology says, you should thank God for making this happen to you- you thought it was a bad thing, but you were wrong. Okay, let's be real- if God's goal is to help you get a better job, there are so many less traumatic, panic-inducing ways for God to accomplish that goal. Maybe God could make you aware of better opportunities and let you make the decision of whether you want to change jobs or not, instead of throwing you off the deep end and then claiming that God did nothing wrong because in the end it all worked out.

Consent does not exist in this view of God. God gets to do whatever God wants to you- God decides what kind of life you are supposed to have, and maps out a "plan for your life" to force you into it. And sure, God made that plan with the intention of giving you happiness- but God doesn't even ask you if it's what you want or not. You don't have a choice. The Star Trek episode "The Cage" taught us how immoral this is.

In the same way, the ocean didn't give any indication that it was answering when Moana's boat flipped over and she called for help. It didn't do anything to reassure her that it cared about her in the storm. Instead, it let the storm keep raging, eventually pushing her onto the island she was hoping to reach. Really? That's how the ocean helps her? It let her stay terrified and soaking wet, and only later did she find out that all along, she was being pushed in the right direction? OH COME ON.

It could have stopped the storm. It could have created a little area of calm water in the center of the storm. It could have flipped her boat back the right way. At the very least, it could have raised up a water "tentacle" to hold her hand and help her know that it cared and everything would be okay. But no. None of that.

And that was the kind of God I was expected to worship. A God who lets all these bad things happen to us, who could totally do any miracle at any moment but doesn't, who just lets us stay worried and terrified until eventually the problem resolves itself and we're expected to thank God for planning it that way. No thanks.

Also, can we talk about the communication between Moana and the ocean? It doesn't talk. On rare occasions, it raises a water "tentacle" that can nod or maybe point at something. Moana talks to it, but it doesn't talk back, or really do much of anything to indicate that it's actually there listening.

Just like God. People who "have a personal relationship with God" pray and pray every day. They talk and talk and talk, and believe that God hears every word clearly but rarely answers. They search in their minds for little words or feelings and analyze them to determine if they were "from God" or not. The "relationship with God" is incredibly one-sided. God is invisible. God can get away with just doing nothing. We say and do so many things to hold up our end of the "relationship," and God offers no tangible evidence that God is holding up the other.

As the movie progresses, the ocean seems to more reliably respond to Moana, and at the end, she even commands it to part, Red-Sea-style, and it does. Okay, great, so it's helping her. But if it really wanted to help her, it could have done WAY more. Moana's grandmother tells her "the ocean chose you" and Moana repeats this throughout the movie, but there's one point where Maui questions it. He asks why the ocean needed to choose someone in the first place. Why didn't the ocean just take the "heart" stone back to that one island by itself? We see that it's able to pick things up and move them.

And I have the same question about God. God supposedly "calls" people to go somewhere and do something, but why can't God just do it?

It was disturbing for me to see something in a movie that was so similar to the cruel God I used to believe in. Something that surrounds us constantly and could do amazing miracles at any moment, but for unexplained reasons, doesn't. Something that uses indirect, illogical means to accomplish its goals- even putting us through incredible trauma. Something that we can talk to all we want, as if we have a relationship, but it never talks back. Something that we're supposed to believe cares about us, even though it behaves in this way.

But I will say, I loved the part where Moana is alone on her boat in the middle of the ocean, and she gives up and asks the ocean to "choose someone else" to take the "heart" stone back to that one island. The ocean tentacle pops up, and she hands over the stone, which then sinks down in the ocean. Moana's grandmother appears as a ghost and talks to her, and Moana decides she will do it. She will take the "heart" stone back. She dives into the water and finds the stone.

Before that, whenever Moana had doubts about her ability to complete the mission, she would keep saying "the ocean chose me." But at that scene, it changes. She decides she is choosing to do it, and it doesn't matter if "the ocean chose her" or not. (At least, that's my interpretation.) This really means a lot to me. I lived most of my life thinking I couldn't make my own decisions; I could only do something if it was God's plan. In a sense, this kind of thinking lets us use God as an excuse when we fail. Earlier in the movie, Maui questioned why the ocean would choose Moana, since she didn't even know how to sail. She said "the ocean chose me for a reason." It was an easy way out; it meant she could ignore her own doubts. She was doing this mission because the ocean wanted her to, so people shouldn't hold her responsible as if it was her own decision. But that all changed. She decided she would take the "heart" stone. That meant that she had to own that decision, and she had to be confident in herself to do it, not some external intelligence that we trust because it's greater than us and it must know what it's doing.

And I get that. I make my own choices now. I choose to live in China. I choose to marry Hendrix. It's a little scary, doing something because I decide, not because I prayed a lot and determined that God was okay with it. And I don't have that guarantee that "this is automatically a good decision and I can trust it completely because God said"; all I have is my own intelligence and decision-making abilities, and I have to trust that. And I don't have that excuse- "it doesn't make sense/ it didn't work, but I just did what God said so it's not my fault."

I didn't like the ocean being a character in "Moana" because it behaved just like the God I used to believe in. Moana finally decided she would make her own decision, just like I no longer serve that version of God.

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And here's an amusing anecdote from after Hendrix and I saw "Moana":

me: "Some of the islands in that movie looked a lot like those volcanoes from the volcano love song."

Hendrix: "What volcano love song?"

me: "You know, it was one of those little short movies at the beginning of another Pixar- err, wait, Disney, I guess it must have been Disney, that we saw last year, I think it was last year, what movie was that? It was these two volcanoes in love."

Hendrix: "How can two volcanoes be in love?"

me: "Wow what movie was that? What movie came out last year? And we went to see it at my parents' house? Don't you remember, there was a boy volcano and girl volcano, and they were singing 'I want someone to LAVAAAAAA' okay I don't remember how the tune went, but like every day they sang that song 'someone to LAVAAAA'..."

Hendrix: [keeps insisting that the concept of two volcanoes in love makes no sense]

me: [keeps coming up with half-remembered details]

me: "It was 'Inside Out'!"

Hendrix: "I saw 'Inside Out' on the airplane."

And that's when I realized that Hendrix was not there with me and my family when we saw 'Inside Out', but he ended up watching it on an international flight a few months later, so he totally never saw
the short with the volcano love song.

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