Moana and the Wonder of Disney Philosophy
All of philosophy begins with a question. And every good story begins with a question. In Moana (2016) the seemingly straightforward question is: “What if … we fished beyond the reef?” Inspiring feelings of wonder, the question becomes the catalyst for a tale of mythology, philosophical reflections upon self-identity, and epic quest to save the world all rolled into one.
Moana grows up on the remote, idyllic-seeming island of Motunui, where things are the way they are and remain unchanged thanks to a heavy dose of tradition and continuity: “They dance to an ancient song/who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need/This tradition is our mission.” It’s quite a summary of the weight of tradition, in catchy song form. That is, until change forces itself upon them because of the long-lost Heart of Te Fiti wreaking havoc upon their fishing, withering the coconut trees, and threatening the fate of their entire people.
Moana’s father, Chief Tui, seems quite set upon the idea that Moana’s future is a fait accompli: “You are the future of our people, Moana. They are not out there. They are right here. It’s time to be who they need you to be.” But can such a process of self-discovery, of becoming who you are supposed to be, come externally?
Moana – like many a Disney female protagonist before her – has a restlessness stemming from her confined situation and wonders why she is so different from everyone else around her.
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?
See the light as it shines on the sea? It’s blinding
But no one knows, how deep it goes
And it seems like it’s calling out to me, so come find me
For Moana, that curiosity and desire to explore is bound up with her self-identity, as when her Gramma counsels: “You may hear a voice inside / And if the voice starts to whisper / To follow the farthest star / Moana, that voice inside is who you are.” That voice inside is her curiosity, a curiosity that becomes her call to adventure and a path leading to finding her truer self.
Moana really is one of the great Disney adventure stories. Such adventure narratives are appealing to us as viewers because they remind us that what we learn along the way can be as important as the destination itself. Moana discovers profound truths about herself, her heritage and her destiny along the way: “All the time wondering where I need to be is behind me / I’m on my own, to worlds unknown / Every turn I take, every trail I track / Is a choice I make, now I can’t turn back / From the great unknown, where I go alone, where I long to be.”
Learning can and often does come about as the result of perplexity, of being lost, of discovering our path through nothing more than trial and error. Moana is a great Disney character. She is confident, able to beat up hordes of coconut pirates and stand up to a shapeshifting demigod. But at the same time, there is a philosophically wonderful Socratic moment when she reaches a near breaking-point with the demigod:
You wanna tell me I don’t know what I’m doing, I know I don’t. I have no idea why the ocean chose me. You’re right. But my island is dying, so I am here. It’s just me and you. And I want to help but I can’t, if you don’t let me.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates famously discovers that he was wise in that he knew that he didn’t know. Perhaps during our own searching, that moment when uncertainty faces us, we also learn something, or at least are more receptive to learning something. We make mistakes as a result of our curiosity and sometimes, if the conditions are right, we learn from them. Sometimes it can be hard, frustrating and even scary to cope with uncertainty and the unknown. This is not always an easy path, as Gramma later reappears to give Moana some much needed encouragement when things looked their bleakest: “Sometimes the world seems against you, the journey may leave a scar. But scars can heal and reveal just where you are/The people you love will change you the things you have learned will guide you / And nothing on earth can silence / The quiet voice still inside you / And when that voice starts to whisper, ‘Moana, you’ve come so far /Moana, listen / Do you know who you are?” Sometimes if we wander and lose our way, sails can be mended, directions can be re-discovered.
Disney animated films have a unique ability to not only entertain us but also to capture our imaginations, to move us, and to inspire a feeling of wonder. In both Disney and in philosophy, sometimes it isn’t just what is told, but how it’s told that can make all of the difference. There really is something about Disney films that stimulates a kind of playfulness of thought and makes us eager to follow along in the journeys of likable, relatable characters. We treasure stories that take us through different historical periods, through inner life (Inside Out) or even the afterlife (Coco).
One of the predominant questions throughout the journey for Moana is trying to seek “the answer to the question you keep asking yourself … who are you meant to be.” In this case, the journey outward becomes a journey inward of self-discovery that sounds much more rousing in song form: “I am everything I’ve learned and more, still it calls me! And the call isn’t out there it all, it’s inside me!” There is something satisfying in such a story that threads a balance between received older wisdom and the need for exploration and discovery.
It’s one thing to read a sentence that tells us to seek our answers where we already are. But there is a reason why some stories and narratives are more than simply entertaining; the best are the ones that we also learn from. When we have the experience of watching a character like a Moana take that outward and inward journey, we understand in a different way a message such as: “There comes a day/ When you’re gonna look around/ And realize happiness is where you are.” Ideas can be communicated through stories in a way that can feel more profound than simple prose. At the end of a Disney story we often feel a sense of closure, that our curiosity for the narrative has been satisfied (or at least until they decide to spin off a sequel).
Disney stories are certainly unlike philosophy in this way. A good story ending may be when we have all of the answers that we feel we need. A good philosophy ending usually leaves us with more questions.
Tyler Shores is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education and Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, and received his Master’s Degree from the University of Oxford. His research interests include the experience of reading in print and digital mediums, attention spans, distractions, and social media. At the University of California, Berkeley, he created and taught a course on The Simpsons and Philosophy (inspired by William Irwin’s book of the same name). Tyler has contributed to other volumes in this series including Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, 30 Rock and Philosophy, and LEGO and Philosophy. He previously worked at Google on the Authors@Google lecture series. You can follow Tyler on Twitter at @tylershores