How Trolls, Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings teach us compassion, empathy and understanding

In 2016, three (children’s) movies touched on an important theme. Today, I’m going to talk about them, and why these movies are important to our survival as a species. (Yes, you read that right. And no, I’m not exaggerating.) These movies are: Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Trolls.

First things first, I am going to be referencing these movies throughout this entry, so there will be many spoilers ahead. So, if you haven’t watched any of these movies, now is your chance. I believe all three of them are available to stream on Netflix. Just bookmark this entry and come back. Or you could read me gushing about how awesome these movies are and then watch them. Totally up to you.

All three movies have a main protagonist. In Trolls, it is Princess Poppy. In Moana, well, it’s Moana. In Kubo and the Two Strings, it is Kubo. They all have a quest or a goal in mind. For Poppy, it is to rescue her kidnapped friends. Moana wants to restore the heart of Te Feti in order to save her village and people. Kubo is on a journey to find his father’s armor and weapons so that he can become safe from the evil Moon King.

Our courageous young remodels: Poppy, Moana and Kubo.

They all have enemies. In Trolls, it is the malicious Bergen, who literally eat trolls to satisfy their own needs for happiness. In Moana, it is Te Ka, a giant lava monster who also wants the heart of Te Feti, and seemingly prevents Moana from restoring it. In Kubo, it is the Moon King – Kubo’s grandfather who took Kubo’s eye when he was a baby, and seeks to take the other one from him in order to become immortal.

These enemies are not benign. In Trolls, the Bergen – who are much bigger and seemingly more vast than their troll counterparts – have historically eaten and killed many trolls. In Moana, the powerful Te Ka had previously vanquished a demigod, and had critically damaged an irreplaceable magical item. In Kubo, the Moon King had stolen an eyeball from a baby, as well as killed that baby’s mother and father, as he was trying to permanently blind Kubo by taking his remaining eye. Not only are all of these enemies powerful, but they are dark and deserve to be destroyed.

Our formidable foes: the Bergen, Te Ka, and the Moon King.

All of these amazing protagonists achieve their goals. Poppy rescues her friends. Moana saves her village. Kubo finds his father’s things and becomes safe from the Moon King. The way they do it is the most interesting part. They don’t physically defeat them. In all of these stories, our humble heroes use empathy, understanding and compassion as their weapons of choice.

Compassion in Trolls

Instead of demonizing the Bergen for their past wrongs, which consist of killing and eating her people, Poppy sees beyond that. She uses her empathy to understand that the Bergen only want to be happy, and the only way they have been taught to attain happiness is by eating trolls. By compassionately befriending a Bergen, she is able to free all of her people. Even when Poppy and her friends are in the clear, she decides to use her strengths – hugging, singing and dancing – to teach all of the Bergen a new way to be happy. And it works!

In the above clip, Poppy teaches the Bergen that they can be happy without eating trolls.

Empathy in Moana

Throughout their epic fight with Te Ka, Moana realizes that Te Ka is the same as the goddess Te Feti, who has been transformed into a lava monster with the loss of her heart. Moana realizes why Te Ka is behaving as she does. She is able to empathize with the lava monster, calling to her with compassion. With this attitude, she is able to restore her heart.

In the above clip, Moana uses understanding and empathy to fight Te Ka.

Understanding in Kubo and the Two Strings

In Kubo’s quest, great importance is placed on armor and weapons. Kubo believes that he must use these to defeat the Moon King, who, turns out, has the power to become a giant centipede snake monster thing. Anyhow, Kubo is definitely no match physically. But, Kubo has another power – the power of music and telling stories. Instead of reaching for the sword to kill the Moon King, he picks up his shamisen (Japanese guitar) and connects with the memory of his own mother and father. By understanding that love, and the memories of loved ones are the greatest magic of all, Kubo is able to use this power to defeat the corrupt Moon King, who is left as a mortal old man, deprived of all of his memories. Instead of telling his grandfather how horrible he was – and remember that the Moon King actually did kill Kubo’s parents – Kubo and his friends from the village tell his grandfather how kind, decent, and generous he was. This is taking compassion to the next level, but accomplishes so much more than mere justice or revenge could ever do. First of all, it completely gets rid of the evil Moon King. As he begins to believe all of the things the villagers are telling him, his former disposition to be cruel and evil are completely gone. Secondly, it gives Kubo a second chance to have a family, to start from scratch a relationship that was fraught with strife from the very beginning.

In the above clip, Kubo uses his mother’s hair, his father’s bowstring, and his hair to string his shamisen and vanquish the Moon King with the power of love, memories and family.

All of these films teach us just how important the qualities of empathy, compassion and diplomacy are, especially today. In each of these movies’ final battles, force and violence were categorically incorrect ways of reaching our protagonists’ goals. Can we apply these lessons to our own lives? Absolutely.

First of all, we can apply these lessons in our own personal interactions with others. It might be easier to dismiss those who disagree with us or to negatively label those who act differently than we do, believing that we can force them to see things the way that we do. But It actually won’t do one single constructive thing. If you want to change others’ minds, you need to understand where the other is coming from. You need to listen to them with empathy, compassion and respect. Otherwise, why would they even listen to you? What possible reason could they have for changing their minds? The odds are that you will not get anyone to change their minds anyway, but if you act with empathy and compassion, at least the other will see your side as populated with people who are good, genuinely loving, and deserving of their respect.

Secondly, we live in an increasingly divisive political climate. Politics are synonymous with hypocrisy. If you believe your cause is just, kind, and commonsensical, it would behoove you to act in accordance with those principles. Otherwise, you are just another hypocrite. Flat out labeling the other side as being categorically wrong, misguided, evil or of name-calling in any way is counterintuitive to your cause. In doing this, you fail to see the nuances, the subtlety, or the individual. Winning over people to what you believe cannot be accomplished by ostracizing, shaming, or insulting others. It is achieved with empathy, compassion, and diplomacy. One at a time. Just like it did with Poppy, Moana and Kubo.

There are practical ways to do this, because it does not come naturally, unfortunately. First, listen to others with the intent to identify their needs. Secondly, ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand where they are coming from. Third, respond in a way that is better than you believe that they deserve. If this accomplishes nothing else, you will at least become a better, more informed person for doing it. Acting with empathy and compassion is difficult, especially when you think you are fighting a foe so huge and monstrous that your purest instinct is to attack or defend yourself. Just remember the lessons we learned from Trolls, Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings. Instead of reaching for the sword (destruction), let us reach for the shamisen (creation).

Worldwide, it might seem easier to wipe out an enemy than spend time to understand them. In fact, just recently, Miss Iraq (Sarah Idan) came under immense (and life-threatening) fire for taking a selfie with Miss Israel. In fact, her family had to flee the country after she posted the picture to social media. Instead of bowing to the mounting pressure to remove the photo, Sarah bravely refused to do so1. This is a young woman who wanted to build a bridge between two nations that have been fighting for eons. The easy thing would have been avoiding her “enemy,” instead of approaching with compassion and a desire to understand. It makes more sense to approach our “enemies” with empathy instead of hatred and violence. These lessons go a long way in preserving unity, peace and the survival of our species in this world.

I find it to be a little more than coincidental that movies advocating for empathy, compassion and diplomacy were released in 2016, just last year. In 2017, we see that we have dearly needed these virtues. Going forward in 2018, we need these more than ever. It is difficult to take the high road and truly embrace these principles, but it is my fervent hope that we do. The year 2017 was not that great. Let’s use Poppy, Moana and Kubo as positive role models for 2018!


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