REVIEW: Is 'Moana' OK for small children? (And are there any scary parts?)

by Michael Foust |

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – Moana is an adventurous teenager who lives on a small Pacific Ocean island that – we're told – "always gives us what we need." And the island does keep everybody fed ... until the fishermen no longer can catch fish and the coconut trees fail to produce edible fruit.

So, Moana, the daughter of the island chief, decides to board her raft and cross the ocean to find the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), who rules over the wind and sea. Why? Because her grandmother said that Maui previously stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti – and that if her heart could be restored, the island would once again teem with fish and plant life.

Disney's Moana (PG) is out in theaters this weekend, providing families with an animated musical adventure on a holiday weekend and a worldview not seen in most children's movies.

Set in a Polynesian culture, the film's plot spotlights polytheism, animism and reincarnation, and also has a few scary parts. Let's look at the details.

The Good

I have a weak spot for most musicals, and Moana's score surpassed my expectations. The music isn't as good as Frozen, but I did enjoy it far more than Trolls.

The film continues the recent trend in films of placing strong-willed female heroes at the center of the action. As the father of a young daughter I have enjoyed this new era, particularly because the heroines – for the most part – have not been sexualized. That's always good in an industry that often does the opposite.

Moana is entertaining and genuinely funny. I also enjoyed watching the unique beauty of the island, ocean and the Polynesian culture, even though it does present some worldview concerns (see below).

Finally, Moana herself overcomes fear and chooses to sacrifice her safety for the welfare of others – traits that any parents would want to see emulated in their kids.

The Bad/Worldview

Spoilers ahead!

Moana has virtually no language problems ("butt cheeks," "screwed" and an unfinished "son of a ...") or sexuality (Moana wears a belly-revealing outfit), but that doesn't mean it is appropriate for every family and child.

The scariest parts involve the Demon of Earth and Fire, a huge island-sized creature who has the appearance of a demon-possessed volcano. We see it at least twice, including in the film's climax when Moana herself battles the creature. (Here, there's a happy ending for kids: Moana gives the demon its heart and learns that – surprise! – the demon in fact was the goddess Te Fiti, who is pleasant and not scary.)

Other than a couple of battles with the Demon of Earth and Fire and a battle with some "magical coconut" pirates (who use spears and blow darts), there is no violence. In fact, there are no guns, bullets or punches in the film.

From a Christian perspective, the biggest problem in Moana lies in its worldview. The movie is not the typical mindless-but-funny film like Toy Story or Ice Age. Instead, Moana promotes a belief system that is unbiblical, even though many people in the real world do hold it.

The movie opens with a creation account whereby we learn that "in the beginning, there was only ocean" and that a goddess then created all life. Maui, of course, is a demigod – a cross between a person and a god. Thus, he has the power to change himself from a normal-looking man to any sort of animal.

In one scene Moana's grandmother is playing amidst sea creatures in the ocean when she tells Moana that when she dies "I'm going to come back as one of these." The plot references not only polytheism (the believe in multiple gods) but also animism (the believe that objects and animals can have spirit qualities). The grandmother tells Moana that "the ocean chose you" and we then see evidence of that – the ocean communicates with Moana throughout the film. It even "spits" her back on the boat when she is on the verge of drowning.

Later, Moana literally talks to her now-deceased grandmother (who looks like a hologram). In the film's final minutes, the goddess Te Fiti lays down at sea, goes to sleep, and forms a new island. Several times in the film we also hear references to "gods." At first glance all of this might sound like harmless fairy tales, but polytheism, animism and reincarnation are the foundational beliefs of some people groups – and Christian families shouldn't assume it will just "go over" their kids' heads.

The Verdict: OK for Kids?

Moana is a tricky film for determining an appropriate age. If my only concern were potential nightmares, then I would have no problem taking my 4-year-old twins. That's because the scary parts aren't really that scary – and are brief. But from a worldview perspective, I would not take them. (Other families will come to different conclusions.) Of course, Christian families can turn Moana into sort of a worldview 101 class – but I'd rather do that at an older age. My oldest child is 8, and I would take him to Moana, but only because he is mature enough to talk a little theology and apologetics. (GotQuestions.org is a great, simple apologetics resource.)

Discussion Questions

What positive qualities did Moana exhibit? Did she treat her father with respect? What does the Bible say about reincarnation? About multiple gods? Was Maui a bully? Did he use his strength for good or for bad? What fears do you need to overcome?

Entertainment rating: 4 out of 5. Family-friendly rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Moana is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.

Michael Foust is the father of four small children and has covered the film industry for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter (@MichaelFoust) or on his website: MichaelFoust.com