I’m sitting here listening to a song in Gaelic and thinking about my ancestors that spoke this language long ago. Music takes you across the world and through time and is a universal language – it doesn’t matter if you can understand the words, often by the sound you can understand the meaning of the song. The song I’m listening to in particular is a lullaby, and happens to be from the Disney movie Brave, set in medieval Scotland.
Where do the Stories come from?
The other day, my kids and I drove an hour to visit their great-grandmother and blasted Disney music the entire drive, including music from Brave. Ellie, my 8-year-old daughter, asked me, “Was Disney the first to come up these ideas?” I wasn’t sure at first what she meant, but soon realized she was talking about the story ideas for the movies. “No,” I answered, “many Disney movies are based on fairy tales and legends.” We proceeded to list off as many Disney movies as we could and where the stories came from. It made me think about the history of these stories, how many are rooted deep in legend and myth, and how many are historical but have been changed to fit a Disney movie storyline. Our conversation faded and we continued to listen to our music, and the soundtrack from Brave faded into the songs from Moana but now I was thinking more about how we can learn history and even family history from Disney movies.
Storytelling – Disney style
Storytelling takes on so many different forms in Disney, as does the art, but generally there is a fanciful element to the stories and the movies do include the character of the original source and story. So many are rooted in myth, legend, or folk tale, and from this our kids can learn just how long people have been telling stories. Disney's Hercules can teach kids elements of ancient Greek mythology, while Brave, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White can give them a glimpse into medieval legends and storytelling, and even lifestyle, with a Disney twist, of course. Kids may not realize just how old the tale of Aladdin is but it may date back a thousand years in the Middle East… though of course our beloved blue Robin Williams genie is purely modern.
Moana and her Ancestors
Family is hugely important in Disney movies but I’ve never seen a Disney movie that had more focus on family history than last year’s Moana. (Warning: spoiler alert!)
Moana is set in the ancient South Pacific and includes elements of Polynesian religion and culture, including the importance of grandparents. Moana is close to her grandmother, and is guided by her in life and after her death. Moana is a young girl who is confined to her island but dreams of sailing out to sea and exploring the ocean. Her father fears for her and wants her to stay home, but her grandmother knows Moana is destined for more. She takes her to a secret cave where Moana discovers several old boats. If they never leave the island, why are there such large boats?
Bang the drum, Moana remembers her grandmother telling her. She bangs the drum, and the torches in the cave light. Then suddenly, she sees a vision – of her ancestors. The song “We Know the Way” plays as Moana watches her ancient ancestors, voyageurs, “sail the length of the sea on the ocean breeze.” They were voyageurs! This is why Moana is so drawn to the sea – because, as she later sings in "I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)", “we are descended from voyageurs, who found their way across the world.” (Find more Moana lyrics here.)
If you’ve read this far, you probably have either seen Moana or aren’t worried about spoilers. I love that Moana is her own person, but that she also finds her identity in who her ancestors were. She sings in one song of her recently passed grandmother as she glides past her as a now-reincarnated sting ray, “see her light up the sky and the sea – she calls me!” and later of her ancestors, “they call me!” She finds herself, but she also knows who she is because of who her ancestors were. Moana is a beautiful story to teach kids about family history.
Disney and its Stories
Disney tells the stories of the world in a new and modern way, often hilarious, often tear-jerking, with classic music and beautiful animation. It’s an amazing way to bring folk tales, myths, legends, and history to life to kids and it’s no wonder it’s hooked so many children for generations, myself and my kids included. (My sister and I wore out cassette tapes of Disney soundtracks in the ‘90s, and not too long ago, I actually got pulled over for going too fast while blasting the soundtrack for Princess and the Frog – true story…)
If you haven’t gotten a chance to see Moana with your kids yet, you need to see it. I’m here to tell you, if you’re a family historian, if you’re a Disney lover, if you have kids, or if you’re human….you need to see this movie. We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain… we know the way!
Want to read about another Disney movie and its connection to family history? Pop over to my friend Emily’s blog Growing Little Leaves to read about Mulan and her ancestors.
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