Did Disney Finally Get It Culturally Right With Moana


Moana, the latest offering from Disney animation, has been a critical and commercial success. While this could have been easily foreseen there was always a question about whether it would appease sceptics of Disney who feel they can sometimes misrepresent cultures?

Moana is set in the south pacific about a young Polynesian Chief’s daughter who is torn between doing her duty and exploring. It is heavily influenced by the culture of that area of the world, and includes the mythical gods from Maori stories such as Maui.

Maui is a demi god who stole the heartstone of a goddess island called Te Fiti for the humans. The stone contains the power to create life. He is attacked by a lava god Te Ka and loses the stone and the source of his power, a decorated fishhook. He is left stranded on an island for a thousand years.

The film was another new example of female lead characters in Disney and comes off the back of similar character traits to Frozen. One vital difference though is that Moana is not a princess. In fact the film mocks itself when Moana is jokingly referred to as a princess by Maui, because she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick.

It was not all plain sailing however. Many have said the depiction of Polynesian men as overweight is perpetuating stereotypes and the female goddess had a sparing role. But for once it has not been through want of trying by Disney leaders to avoid such controversy.

It was a necessity for John Lasseter (Disney Animator Chief) that the film was sensitive to the cultural themes it was using. He made sure the directors were well chosen and informed before even starting on a script. The directors are Ron Clements and John Musker who virtually invented the modern Disney musical with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin in their back catalogue. They travelled Polynesia and gathered a crack team of anthropologists, historians, linguists and choreographers from various pacific nations. This Oceanic trust helped make sure this film is one of the most delicately handled films by Disney.

The cast were all Polynesian actors with the biggest star is (both metaphorically and physically) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who plays demi-god Maui. The action star took on his role with tremendous enthusiasm, and thanks to it being an animation there was no chance of the former wrestler starting a fight on the set! Other actors involved was Flight of the Conchords Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger and newcomer Auli’I Cravahlo as Moana.

While the story plays out in a straightforward mission, the theme of female empowerment and environmental responsibility are very topical and hit home. One other success was the songs which included traditional Tokelauan folk songs, something I have not seen done by Disney before. The film benefitted from having Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda acting the puppet master for the films soundtrack.

Moana was not only a successful financial venture, but also a step forward for Disney and their art. They are clearly making every effort to make sure that the worlds they inhabit are understood and properly represented from now on.

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