A Visual Experience

This particular movie had not been on our radar. Isn’t it just another animated movie?

We patiently waited for it to be available for rent, where we could watch it from the comfort of our home. I am sure the kids will love it, I mean what animated Disney movie don’t they like?

We put it in, pretty excited to see how they would tell a new story…

Mom tribe, Moana is amazing!

Moana reveals another culture, another time, and another place. In more recent years Disney (just an example) has been striving more to do things right with their animated movies when it comes to culture. Obviously, they cannot be 100% true to the culture, however, there is still so much to learn from watching a new story and being entertained by a plot so different from anything you could concoct within the context of your own worldview.

See her light up the night in the sea, she calls me
And yes I know that I can go
There’s a moon in the sky and the wind is behind me
Soon I’ll know how far I’ll go

How Far I’ll Go (Reprise) from Moana

I wanted to talk about books and festivals first because I want you to stretch your boundaries. But let’s take a moment to be real—you and your children have probably been introduced to new cultures through movies before anything else!

So, you may be asking yourself, what can I do when we watch these kinds of movies? Question everything! Talk with your children about what they are watching. Question why things are different or why they are not.

Let’s unpack those two approaches.

Picking Out Cultural Nuances

In Moana, did you ever wonder why she touched her forehead to the forehead of the goddess Te Fiti at the end of the movie? If you look closer, did you notice she did the same thing with the grandmother on her death bed? That gesture is very special in Polynesian culture. It is called the hongi.

“The hongi is a traditional Maori greeting where two people press their foreheads and noses together, serving as a formal handshake. During the hongi, the ha or breath of life, is exchanged and intermingled.” (Source)

This gesture represents a difference you may have seen in their culture from your own culture. Shows and movies can introduce you to differences in cultures, but to make a true impression on a child, they must be discussed. Seeing a strange greeting or unusual clothing can sometimes be seen as weird or even wrong since it is different. We as parents can step in and say the greeting wasn’t strange and the clothing wasn’t unusual, it is just different. It is beneficial for us to point out the differences and to show them as beautiful and unique instead of attaching negative responses to them.

Next, I wanted to address that things may seem too familiar. Many times, movies and shows produce a hybrid between the creator’s culture and the culture they are trying to portray.

One of my favorite examples of this is from Mulan. If you have never seen that movie, I would recommend it. It introduces you to some Chinese traditions that you may not be aware of. However, there were definitely some American elements used for the sake of humor that are not true to Chinese culture. The most obvious example would be when Mulan is bathing in the water, and the men run into the bathe, also. (She was supposed to be a man, too, so this is not as bad as it sounds…) When the men are running into the water, one of them throws off red and white heart underpants! You can imagine they did not have those in ancient China. The creators of the movie added that item of our culture for an element of humor, and most watching the movie would not think twice about it.

Finally, I want to address the fact that no show or movie could accurately portray every aspect of the culture they are trying to. No matter how much you learn about a different culture, there will always be nuances that you will never fully understand. I do not think that is a bad thing; it is just something we all need to be aware of.

Are Movies Comprehensive with Culture?

In the example of Moana, we need to be aware that that movie is not a comprehensive look into Polynesian culture. You can read some examples here, here, and here. I would encourage you to show more information to your children so they are aware of that. Reading books, looking up sound information online, or even reading responses from people of that culture are very helpful as opposed to just taking a culture at face value from a single resource such as a movie.

Here are some tips for going deeper into culture through a movie:

  1. What looks different? Find out why. Discuss that differences are not bad, but just different.
  2. What seems familiar to your own culture? Why do you think those things are similar? Discuss…
  3. Look at setting. Find the location on a map and read about the time period for that culture. Maybe even compare that time period with the current time period with that same culture.
  4. Try to find other information on that culture that may have not been included in the movie. Why do you think it was not included? How do you think that culture feels about only being partially represented?
  5. Talk about what you may have noticed that your children didn’t notice. Please discuss the hard topics. Loss of family, racial differences, war realities, and challenging cultural norms are some of the common issues you will see in movies. What better way to bring up the conversation than through a character your children want to love?

Great movies for starting to have these conversations:

Moana by Disney

How to Train Your Dragon by Dreamworks (Though this is more fictional, there are great cultural topics to bring up that would be different from what you know!)

Mulan by Disney

Paddington by Marmalade Films (Great movie for watching someone of one culture enter another culture. Make sure to talk about the differences!)