Moana: “We Know the Way”

I’ve been listening to the Moana soundtrack on heavy rotation lately. It gives me a connection to the film while I wait to go see it again. One song that I keep coming back to is this one, “We Know the Way.” Spoilers will come after.

Last night, I wrote about Moana and the ocean. This song appears at that crucial moment in the film when Moana learns that her ancestors were sea voyagers. The scene, which involves a cave in that epic sort of way would make Joseph Campbell proud. We can learn so much of ourselves when we go into caves, or at least that’s what the myths tell us. Moana goes into the cave at her grandmother’s advice, because Moana is trying to learn why the island is dying. She is instructed to bang the drum and listen to what the cave tells her. The cave sings “We Know the Way” to her.

Here’s a lyric excerpt:

We read the wind and the sky
When the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas
On the ocean breeze
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are

The wayfinding tradition is that they learn how to read the stars, the ocean, and the wind to navigate the sea. Because they have been landlubbers for so long, they’ve forgotten how. The secrets weren’t passed down. When Moana’s father tried to venture beyond the reef, he didn’t know how to sail, so when he encountered a storm, he lost his best friend to the depths. He never forgave himself, and when he became the chief, he put an end to voyaging past the boundary of the reef. Moana, whose name means ocean, couldn’t ignore the call.

Learning the origins of her people is a significant moment for her–it gives her the validation that she can, in fact, heed the call of the ocean. She realizes that if she can revive the sailing tradition with her people, it would solve their food shortage and dying island problem. Her father is displeased by this idea, and threatens to burn the boats. Her grandmother uses this time to fall ill (again, in a perfectly Joseph Campbell pushing-you-on-the-adventure sort of way). Her grandmother tells her to go, and while everyone’s back is turned…she does.

My interpretation of the song hinges on the line,

“We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are”

The very identity of the people is wrapped up in the adventure. By adventuring, they know who they are. They always know where they are, and they’re never lost. Importantly, their collective Self is never lost. It’s a rather popular notion in contemporary culture that “not all who wander are lost.” But what does it mean to be lost really? Can one be lost if one knows exactly where one happens to be?

This is something that I think American culture values in our myths. From pirates, to cowboys, to space explorers, American myth is filled with people who are never lost, yet are constantly on the move. The constant state of being rootless has created a weird phenomenon that Rollo May sums up through his analysis of “the lonely cowboy” (The Cry for Myth). We perpetuate the myth of this character, even if it’s not factually true–we want to be on the move, but it does get lonely.

Moana’s ancestors traveled as a tribe. This is something that is missed in American culture. We may move in our small families, but not the entire extended family. We no longer move in tribes, and seem to value the fact that we don’t. Part of Moana’s boon is relearning the wayfinding tradition so she can reactivate the identity of her people. Imagine what strength we could have as a country if we reactivated our identity as a people, and started to once again sail together as a tribe.


Moana and the Ocean

The other day, I was surfing a Buzzfeed article about Moana and came across a delicious little tidbit:

“Moana” means “ocean,” and it’s a nongendered word.

This is a significant detail in the context of the movie. Spoilers below.

So, here’s the thing: The whole point of the film is that Moana is struggling with the fact that the ocean is calling her. When she’s a baby, the ocean chooses her. She wanders over to the sea, lured by a pretty shell. She reaches for it, and the ocean parts a pathway for her. She follows the trail of shells and meets a column of ocean, who essentially kisses her in the universal symbol of blessing, and gives her the green heart of Tafiti. She drops the heart as she runs back to her father, who is very nervous about the lure of the ocean (although he recognizes that Moana experiences the same call as he does–but this really isn’t a story about father atonement, so don’t get distracted by this detail).

Until she finally heeds the call to adventure, she struggles with the call of the ocean. I wrote about her anthem, “How Far I’ll Go,” in another post. One of the other members of my Doctor Disney trinity, Dori Koehler, wrote this great post about the Call to Adventure and Moana’s message for our country. (Our third is the ever-wonderful Amy Davis. You know, that Amy Davis.)

But think about it this way: if her names mean ocean, that call that she’s struggling with is the call of her Self. So let’s talk about how this film isn’t just about empowerment; it’s about individuation.

Personally, I think that individuation is one of Jung’s best concepts. This is the process by which one becomes a whole in-divid-ual, with a balanced psyche (conscious and unconscious). One of the arguments I get into with older Jungians is whether or not individuation can happen in younger people. One way of interpreting Jung’s theory about individuation suggests that once you achieve it, you’ve achieved nirvana, and you’re done. The way I tend to interpret individuation places emphasis on the process, and brings together the end goal of the process with the hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell. One often overlooked detail about Campbell’s journey is that the hero has to go home and share the boon, and once this is done, the hero goes off on another journey. Stories aren’t written to share with us the next step of the journey. So what if the heroes aren’t just going off into the woods…but rather going on their next journey?

That, to me, is closer to the reality of life. We constantly go from one journey to the next. Each journey builds on the previous to define who we are, adding a facet to our in-divid-uality.

When Campbell writes about what happens to us when we ignore the call to adventure, he’s cautioning us from getting so static that we forget about the journey and forget who we are. That little voice constantly calling us tells us who we are. It’s our heart.

The ocean is calling Moana. The heart of Tafiti is her heart. Her heart is literally calling her home.

Moana’s boon is to restore her people to their Wayfinding tradition. She learns from Maui how to navigate the seas, and she takes her people back on the adventure. As the song of the Wayfinders tells us, they always know home in their heart as they go searching for the next island. The point of her people is to go on the hunt for the islands that Maui raises with his fishhook. To constantly go on questing journeys for the next adventure.

When I sat through the credits of the film, I posted on Facebook the observation that this film out-Campbells Joseph Campbell. Because it does: Campbell may have given us the literary road map of the hero’s journey, but this film takes to that next level: the journey continues. Literally. We continue.

Speaking of heart, I want to give a shout-out to the short film ahead of Moana, called Inner Workings of the Human Body. Do you follow your head? Or your heart?


I would be remiss to not write something about Moana. I took my daughter to see this film as a Black Friday celebration. Let’s start with the trailer, then go through some comments, with spoilers of course.

There’s so much to say about this film that I’m still a bit speechless and struggle to gather all of my thoughts in a way that makes sense. The premise of the film is that Maui, trickster god that he is, steals the heart of Tafiti, the Mother Goddess of all life. His reasoning is that if he gives the key to making life to the humans, then they’ll be able to also make life and can prosper. At least he seems like he had some good intentions, right? He’s punished, though. Cast away on a remote island, and separated from his fishhook, which is the magical tool that gives him his god-like power (remember, he’s a demi-god).

As a baby, Moana, the chieftain’s daughter, finds the heart and is clearly blessed by the ocean for something far greater than herself.

What follows is this totally, and perfectly, Campbellian hero’s journey, except that it’s a very feminine journey. Moana isn’t a warrior (one of my peeves about female heroes–do they always have to be a warrior to have a hero’s journey? That’s so lame.), but she’s someone who feels a call to adventure. Her grandmother teaches her to listen to those voices that whisper inside of her, and when her island starts to die, she finally listens to that whisper. Her anthem, “How Far I’ll Go,” ranks up there with “Let It Go” for Great Disney Empowerment Anthems. It’s about hearing the Call, and struggling to get to the point where she’ll heed it. The song is reprised throughout the film at key moments when Moana unlocks another aspect of herself, with the final reprise wrapped into the song, “I Am Moana,” which is the moment when, after failing to confront the volcano god, she gains the courage to finish the journey.

And then there’s Maui. Maui is a trickster. He stole fire, raised islands, and many heroic deeds. When we first meet Maui, he literally acts like HE’S the greatest gift to humanity. His song, “You’re Welcome,” sings like the anthem for any dude who thinks that all women should be subservient and thankful for all the things that the male heroes do. But he’s incredibly lonely and doesn’t know how to be a hero without his fishhook. When Moana tells him that he’s no longer a hero to humanity and that the people are suffering, she uses this ego to convince him to go on the journey with her to restore the heart to Tafiti. What he winds up learning along the way is humility, that he’s not all that (and a hook of tricks).

The restoration of Tafiti’s heart can be read as a message of restoring the feminine, taking care of Mother Earth, having respect for the delicate balance of life…whatever flavor you prefer. In light of the rather tumultuous year that 2016 has been, restoring her heart and Tafiti’s forgiveness of Maui is one of the most beautiful, optimistic messages I’ve encountered recently. Everyone learns a little something about themselves.

Moana returns to her people with the boon of knowing how to be a Wayfinder. She reawakens the ancient spirit of her people, who were career adventurers, not domestic farmers. Maui learns new respect for humans and their relationship with the gods. The gods liked that Maui would raise islands with his hook, because it gave the people new places to explore. This was the natural order of things, which got out of balance because Maui took the heart.

My daughter loved the film. She’s just over 4, so she was most scared by the volcano god (of course). She’s started singing the songs and tells everyone that she’s going to Moana’s island (she’s had a Moana doll for about a month now, and she was really excited about seeing the movie). It resonated with the both of us in a strong way.

All I can say is, “Way to go, Disney!” It’s not a perfect adaptation of Polynesian myths, and I’m sure someone will STILL find something wrong with the depiction of Moana. But it is truly a masterpiece of storytelling and animation (Moana has curly hair and Maui has interactive tattoos). I think this is definitely the right story for the right time, much like Frozen was and continues to be. If you want to look at it mythically, the two films go together: one is about listening to the inner voice (Frozen) and the other is about having the courage to let the voice be the guide (Moana).

I leave you with the music video for the celebrity cover of “How Far I’ll Go.” It’s a little too pop for my taste, but it’s worth giving a listen.

Oh, and one last thing: the music was written by the same people who wrote Hamilton. I haven’t seen/heard Hamilton yet, but now I’m totally convinced to give it a try.

Post-Election OMG

unnamedI did finish the Lego Disney castle awhile ago, but the election (the feverish last couple weeks leading up to it and the time since) has moved my attention elsewhere. I’ve spent–literally–every night since Halloween playing Lego: Batman on my Xbox. Well, specifically #2 and #3. #2 is cool because it gives you an opportunity to explore Gotham, and #3 is interesting because it’s more about the wider DC canon (especially Green Lantern) than it is about Batman. For the record, the first Lego: Batman is my gold standard video game by which I measure all others, even the classic games of my childhood Atari and Nintendo days. Whoever had the brilliant idea of having a the player go through a Batman adventure only to unlock and go through the same adventure from the perspective of the villain is totally brilliant.

There’s a lot of conversation that needs to happen about this election. Not so much the “Why the fuck did this happen” conversation but more the “what can we do to make things better?” This election, whether you supported Trump or Hillary, was an exercise in the American Shadow, the nightmarish underbelly of the American Dream. It’s not just our constitution and civil liberties in jeopardy–but the entire fabric of the American myth.

When I was writing my dissertation, I was stuck on the chapter about New Orleans Square. I knew I was going to write about pirates, ghosts, and shadow, but I couldn’t quite figure out why or how. I think I spent more time on this chapter than I did on the rest of the dissertation.

One day, it struck me. I was watching the Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland collection about space and the atom, and the answer hit me in the face as though it had been staring at me the whole time. The Cold War. I had the history of the colonies, the frontier, and the foundations of American utopianism, but I didn’t have the why Disneyland now answer. The Cold War. The heart of the modern American Dream dates back to the mass consumerism of the Great Depression, but the stress, the shadow, the Doubt…that stems from the Cold War.

I was raised as a privileged person. Part of that privilege was the belief that the Cold War was a thing of the past. Yet, somehow, I knew it wasn’t. I intuited that we’d replaced Communism with Terrorism and that we weren’t done with the Shadow. Which is why the chapter was called: The Shadow of Doubt.

Going through this election was a super-impossible challenge. The results of it still have me reeling. It’s difficult to know what needs to be done next, but I suspect the answer lies in the fact that we need to start rewriting the myth. Define the American Dream on the utopian principles that inspired the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) rather than on our ability to have stuff. Our privilege.

It’s not an easy proposition, and I know that. So that’s why I’m playing Batman.

Meanwhile, check out my book, available on