Category Archives: Movie

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How the Gospel is like Pixar’s Onward, but better

Pixar’s Onward is now top of the Pixar charts for me. It’s a stunning movie, and it seems a terrible shame that its cinematic release was stunted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The movie follows two brothers on a path to re-enchantment; one is a hopeless cynic, the other, his a hopeful, wishful even, older brother who dreams of dragons. It’s a fairy tale that embraces all the best bits of the genre and dares to put forward a message that maybe, just maybe, our modern, technological life has made our view of the world, and experience of it, a little less magical. If you haven’t watched it, I’m not about to spoil it for you, but here’s the trailer.

The younger brother, Ian, grew up without a father, and for one magical day he has the chance to meet his dad; the veil between life and death will be pierced as magic returns to his world (and perhaps, the world at large). It’s a story that follows all the fairy tale tropes as closely as possible; Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ is traipsed with what seems like deliberate care and attention, while the ‘big bad’ is literally, rather than metaphorically, a dragon. And the brothers emerge from their experience transformed, with a new view of life, and even a world transformed by their heroic sacrifice and love. Both are heroes, and it turns out that older brother Barley has been traversing the path of the ‘hero’s journey’ for Ian’s entire life, and his optimistic ‘magical realism’ is vindicated. His desire for dragons reflects a realer reality than an outlook truncated by technology and a myth of self-sufficiency in a closed off world where magic and the supernatural are dismissed as delusions.

Onward is the kind of story emerging with what’s been called ‘the new sincerity’ — the end of cynicism, and perhaps a modern probing into the limits of secular modernity’s closed off universe. Whether or not magic is real, life certainly seems more exciting and the ethical possibilities greater when we live like it is and pursue heroic and costly love. It’s a vivid picture of a growing dissatisfaction with the promises and effects of the technology driven life; and it’s perhaps a delicious irony that the movie is essentially only available via a streaming platform, and made by a company rescued by Apple’s Steve Jobs that produces all its movies with cutting edge computer technology that allows our storytellers to imagine and create such visually stunning worlds.

The story doesn’t simply owe its pathos, or structure, to Joseph Campbell and his myth-making archetype, it is a rich expression of Tolkien’s oeuvre, and his vision for fairy tales in his essay On Fairy Stories.

Tolkien’s essay unpacks the human (or elvish) capacity to create worlds, and sees this as an expression of our created task as sub-creators who are made in the image of a creating God. He sees humanity’s ‘desire for dragons’ — or at least his own — both expressed in the stories we tell and reflecting of deeper, Spiritual truths. And in both his essay, and his writing, saw enchanted stories as a pointed critique of a disenchanted world where we rely on technology to produce ‘progress’ — where technological creation that is not ‘sub-creation’ aligned with the purposes of the creator becomes not ‘elvish’ but orcish — both dehumanising and destructive. In a letter about his development of middle earth he talks about his use of non-elvish magic as a metaphor for technological disruption of the natural world.

By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.”

Then, he describes the role of the Elves…

The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.

And his understanding of evil…

“The enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others — speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans — is a recurrent motive.”

The magic in Onward — at least the good magic wielded by the trainee wizard Ian — is the sort of nature-extending sub-creation Tolkien imagines as elvish. It’s about beings discovering and working with the fabric of the ‘natural’ universe. It helps that Ian and Barley are elves. The ‘enemy’ — throughout the story — is the status quo assumption that magic isn’t real, and that the boys must stop and conform to the technological world and its benefits. Right up until the world is confronted with the reality of magic, and that there’s a sinister, beastly, dragon-like (literally in this case) force opposed to life and love, and geared towards destruction.

While Tolkien detested allegory, wanted mythic worlds to be consistent all the way down to the roots of the trees (and so had issues with Narnia for both its obvious Christianity, and the inclusion of Santa Claus and a random hodge-podge of mythical creatures from a variety of traditions), and didn’t think Christianity could be imported into these mythic worlds, or mythic worlds as expressions of human traditions (such that his letter linked above describes a desire for an English fantasy that didn’t contain obvious allusions to the Christian story), he was a Christian writer who saw all fairy stories as innately produced in us as a result of our relationship to the world-building creator, and all ‘fall stories’ and destructive dominion (via technology) as expressions of something in the human condition.

In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says we want a world where Elvish art, ‘sub-creation’ — a particular sort of magic is possible that is unlike the destructive magic embodied in our tech-obsessed world.

“At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician.”

Onward gets as close to openly embodying this desire. It also contains Tolkien’s most revered feature of a true fairy story — a ‘eucatastrophe’ — the good catastrophe — the joyous turn at the end of a story that makes for a ‘happily ever after’ finish, rather than a tragedy. Again, no spoilers, but the movie is particularly satisfied. For Tolkien all happy endings like this were expressions of the ‘like but better’ true myth at the heart of the universe; the reason the fabric of the universe and this desire for dragons produces these stories almost universally in human cultures is because there is a true fairy story that both produces and ultimately satisfies our longings and desires.

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “Ifyou have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world…

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story,or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christis the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story ofthe Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

Onward is a story that points us forward to the goodness of the true myth; the Gospel of Jesus, that invites us to ponder how our sense of ‘elvish’ sub-creating art and true magic has been obscured by our reliance on our own ingenuity and ability to dominate the natural world with technology, and invites us to consider too that the path of heroism involves a loving act of sacrifice that defeats a dragon and pierces the veil between life and death, not just momentarily, but forever.

It’s a beautiful story, because as a beautiful piece of sub-creation, it draws from and throws light on, the beauty of Jesus, whether it knows it or now.

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How the Gospel of Jesus is like the story of Moana, but better

Moana is the best Disney princess movie I’ve ever seen. And as a 33 year old bloke you might be wondering just how extensive my knowledge of Disney princess movies is, but as a brother of three sisters, and father of two daughters, and as someone who likes to embrace my ‘sensitive’ side sometimes while pretending to mock what’s on the screen — I’ve seen lots. I can’t say I’ve seen them all, but I do alright on those online quizzes where you don’t just have to identify the princess, but know things about the story, and about their handsome prince charming.

Perhaps the best thing about Moana is the total absence of a Prince Charming; where Frozen still has a subtle romance story between Anna and Kristoff (with Anna as empowered leading lady), Moana has the title character, the princess, going toe to toe with a demi-god; not as some weird star-crossed love thing where the god falls in love with some fair maiden; but as a heroine who is determined to put the world to rights, even if she has to grab the god by the hook to do it.

Moana is visually spectacular, and the songs. Oh, the songs. Give me the harmonies of Pacific Island choirs, The Rock rapping, and Jermaine from Flight Of The Conchords belting out a comedy number, and I’m happy.

Moana begins with a retelling of its world’s creation story. Moana’s grandma, Taia, the village storyteller and sage (the mother of the chief, Moana’s father), opens the movie with the words ‘in the beginning,’ and sets out the status quo of the world; the story of paradise lost to the children of Moana’s village; including the infant Moana. In this story, the world isn’t as it should be because Maui, in a bid to impress people and be loved, adored, and worshipped, stole the heart from another god, Te Fiti, who became a sort of world eating, fire-throwing, monster who is gradually causing the natural world to fall apart.

This is the ‘origin story’ of the world that Moana enters as the heroine; the saviour; the ‘chosen one’ — called by the ocean, and the gods, to put the world to rights. This call, from the ocean, includes being gifted, literally, Te Fiti’s heart; a small stone that the ocean throws up to her when she’s a small girl; the ultimate external call to adventure. Only, her father wants her to heed a different call… not a call to go out on an adventure; whether aimless or to save the world, but instead, to remain in the village.

Moana’s family, her village, live on a cloistered island paradise, seemingly out of reach of the destruction wrought by Te Fiti. Paradise hasn’t been lost for them, and in order to protect this community and its idyllic life, staying on the island has become not just an ideal, but an idol; a little tower of rocks placed by chief after chief sits on the highest peak of the island as a stony representation of this religion; where human flourishing is connected to place, and to this story (that the island is not like the rest of the world, and that it has ‘all we need’). This religious outlook is reinforced by rules about fishing within the fringing reef, and the kids, it seems (though especially Moana as the future chief), are brought up with a sort of sung liturgy that reinforces this belief.

Moana, it’s time you knew
The village of Motunui is
All you need
The dancers are practising
They dance to an ancient song
(Who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need)
This tradition is our mission
And Moana, there’s so much to do (make way!) — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

This ‘tradition’ is their mission? These are religious concepts; and they come off the back of (and contradict) the religious creation account that opens the movie. But this new tradition is teaching the children of the island to stay; that home is where the hearth is; even despite their yearnings to the contrary. Where you are, in this tradition, is who you are.

The island gives us what we need
And no one leaves
That’s right, we stay
We’re safe and we’re well provided
And when we look to the future
There you are
You’ll be okay
In time you’ll learn just as I did
You must find happiness right
Where you are — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

Taia subverts this religion, she challenges this orthodoxy, by trying to connect the kids with both the bigger story of the world — the creation story — and the village’s true heritage — they are fearless voyagers who explored the sea and found many other ‘paradises’. She sings:

“You are your father’s daughter
Stubbornness and pride
Mind what he says but remember
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” — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

She says ‘where you are’ is not ‘who you are’; rather ‘where you are going’ shapes who you are — this desire to voyage beyond the island. Yet; the power of liturgy in both song and practice is strong. Moana is convinced, momentarily:

So here I’ll stay
My home, my people beside me
And when I think of tomorrow
There we are
I’ll lead the way
I’ll have my people to guide me
We’ll build our future together
Where we are — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

But despite this brief resolution; Moana is struck by the wanderlust. She is pulled by the call of the ocean; and by her voyager heart’s longing to meet the horizon.

I’ve been standing at the edge of the water
‘Long as I can remember, never really knowing why
I wish I could be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try

See the line where the sky meets the sea it calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know, if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go… — How Far I’ll Go (Moana Soundtrack)

She starts to doubt her father’s account of what the good life looks like, and how she should live for the sake of herself, and the village.

I know, everybody on this island seems so happy on this island
Everything is by design
I know, everybody on this island has a role on this island
So maybe I can roll with mine
I can lead with pride, I can make us strong
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?  — How Far I’ll Go (Moana Soundtrack)

The need for Moana to leave the safety of the village (which is matched by her desire) comes when it turns out their island isn’t free from the scourge of Te Fiti — the coconut trees and fish they depend on for their paradisiacal existence start to die; their future is in jeopardy, and to save the future they need to reconnect with the past. Ultimately Taia reveals that Moana is actually part of a tribe whose true heritage is caught up in voyaging; that her heart’s yearning is actually the traditional one, and part of what real flourishing for her tribe looks like; despite her father’s fears and isolationist instincts.

“We read the wind and the sky
When the sun is high

We sail the length of sea
On the ocean breeze
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are

We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders
In the never ending chain” — We Know The Way (Moana Soundtrack)

Finally, through the course of her journey; her embracing the call; she realises who she is, and it allows her to solve the problem and save the world… mostly without the help of Maui (who turns out to be a relatively self-absorbed (non-)saviour, who is ultimately, himself, redeemed by Moana.

Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island
I’m the girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me
I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana! — I am Moana (Moana Soundtrack)

The titles of these songs mark Moana’s journey to this point of realisation: Where You Are, How Far I’ll Go, We Know The Way, I Am Moana; and this journey allows her to save Te Fiti, as expressed in her song: You Know Who You Are.

The demi-god couldn’t save the world; he only broke it. It was up to Moana to restore the goddess Te Fiti, by taking her own journey of self-discovery and using it to remind Te Fiti of who she is “you know who you are, this is not who you are” — and it’s not just the ‘heart’ that determines this, because at this moment Te Fiti doesn’t have one; identity in this story comes from beyond the self, and through relationship with others via the story of the world for their good, but not to please them. Moana’s message to this wronged goddess is: don’t let Maui’s foolishness define you; don’t let other people’s wrong actions shape you; you aren’t shaped just by your stolen heart… there’s an external call that even this goddess can answer.

This is the way of the world. The Moana world.

Flourishing in this story is about your heart lining up with both your tradition, and the good of others; it’s about pursuing the internal and external call to pursue and serve the greater good.

There’s even a rebuke of Maui that comes as he realises that his attitude in ‘You’re Welcome’ and the people pleasing call from his heart doesn’t line up with his ‘tradition’; the real story of the world. Maui is more like the villainous Tamatoa the garish crab than he’d care to admit, his heart aches for the love of humans, but not truly for their good, for what feeling wanted and worshipped makes him feel.

“Now it’s time for me to take apart
Your aching heart

Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of these humans
Who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough” — Shiny (Moana Soundtrack)

Maui is a disappointing demi-god, and the world of Moana, broken by the cursed goddess, needs a human saviour who’ll take on destructive anger of this goddess and appease, then restore her, and thus the world.

My five year old daughter has been singing these songs on heavy rotation since the movie came out (who am I kidding, I’ve been singing these songs on heavy rotation). Like all good Disney movies, we’re carried through this story, and ‘liturgised’ ourselves, by these songs (as we play them endlessly on repeat in cars and lounge rooms, and learn the rap to impress our children). These songs encourage to find our own sense of ‘calling’ — in terms of our traditions, our community values, our internal desires, and an ‘external’ call to adventure voiced by those who would see us flourish, and coming in response to the needs of others (and the world). And there’s so much that is right about this! Moana also made me think about parenting (and about parenting in Disney movies); how do I respond to the big scary world and teach my kids to live in it in a way that is true to my understanding of its story; rather than in a way that interferes with and re-writes that story into a story of my own making?

The story of Jesus is like Moana, but better. This picture of human flourishing is mirrored in the Gospel, but exceeded — because the God of the gospel is better; the promise of the Gospel is greater, and our songs give us a better sense of where and who we are; because they teach us whose we are, and where we’re going.

Moana gets so much about life in this world right; at least according to the Bible. Our world is broken. It is cursed. It is cursed as the result of a wrong action — but this action is not the act of a demi-god who wants our love, it’s broken because we humans wish we were gods. The curse on this planet does need a human solution; but it also needs a divine solution — and rather than a plucky human heroine teaming up with a reluctant demi-god and fixing the broken heart of another god; in the Christian story the God who has been wronged takes on humanity in order to both pay the cost and provide an infinite and divine solution to the problems with the world, before ultimately restoring it to something greater than the paradise lost.

But that sort of ‘parallel’ to the Gospel story isn’t where Moana really thrives; lots of stories do a sort of mirroring of the Gospel narrative with Jesus as the hero… It’s how Moana explores what human flourishing looks like in a world where gods and the supernatural exist and call us to live in certain ways in response that makes it great (and again, where the Gospel is greater because it is true). The difference is our God isn’t capricious and trying to please us so breaking the world; he’s for us and with us; and we are the problem with the world that he fixes by becoming one of us. Willingly, not begrudgingly like Maui.

Moana invites us to see the world as enchanted; just as the Bible invites us to see the cosmos as created by God for his own grand story; which centres on the arrival of Jesus as ‘God with us’.* It’s this story that provides an external call to go into the world and make followers of Jesus, because of the promise of a better future (and that God will be with us always until the end of the age); and this external call matches the internal call; it lines up with who God has made us to be and what will be good for us and the universe. It links us in to God’s promise to restore and recreate all things; to lift the curse of death and destruction that we face, just as Moana and her villagers faced. Where the Gospel is a better story than Moana is that it teaches us that it’s not just where we’ve come from, or are born, what we do, or where we are called to go in this world that determines who we are; it’s also where we’re going. Paradise restored in Moana is temporary; paradise restored in the Christian story is forever. Here’s how the story of the Gospel ends; the story of Jesus’ victory — not a demi-god, but fully-god, and fully human — fixing everything; inviting us to know who we are as we hear this story and are invited into it.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. — Revelation 21:1-7

Plus. It comes with better songs. Songs that we’ll be singing in this new eternity forever.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” — Revelation 7:9-10

Moana challenges how we parent in this world too — because it shows us where parenting can go wrong if the world is actually enchanted and there are causes beyond ourselves and our survival; if there’s a bigger narrative — especially one that addresses our problems and fears. And it reminds us that songs and stories are really powerful tools for shaping our kids; so we should choose good ones, and I’m happy for my kids to watch and sing Moana songs, so long as they’re also hearing and singing songs about the real king in order to know who they are, and where they’re called to go. Given that we know where we’re going, and who wins, there’s no room for fear and restricting people to our little safe communities when they call — the mission of our tradition — is much bigger; to go into all the world and make disciples.

*For a bit of a reflection on how Moana provides a better version of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary” than our modern stories, see the comments.