Films are an important part of our culture and one of the most essential forms of media. They are incredibly influential; they expose us to new circumstances, perspectives, and cultures. Disney’s film Moana is one that does just this. The film takes place in ancient Polynesia, an area within the Pacific Islands consisting of islands like Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, Easter Island, and many more. The image below displays the Polynesian area in the Pacific Ocean.
The film’s story follows Moana, a 16 year old girl and the future chief of her island Motunui. When some of the life on the island– like the coconuts and the fish– seems to be inexplicably dying, Moana is confronted with a task to save it. She sets off on the ocean, where she has always longed to be, to restore her island and prevent the spread of darkness across the world. To do so she must return the heart of Te Fiti, which was stolen and lost by the demigod Maui. On her quest, Moana tracks down Maui, and together, they venture to set things right.
Because Moana is a Disney animated film, it was ensured—with sufficient funds, of course—to be a film of high quality (in terms of animation, actors, music, etc). In addition, it is a film made with intention: to make a great deal of money and to be played all over the world for many years to come. Most Disney animated films do just this. Moana arguably, also appeals to all age groups. These characteristics make Moana an incredibly influential film with a wide-spread audience. These are big responsibilities, especially for a film that stars and under-represented and often misrepresented culture. The film seems to take this into consideration and makes a great effort to be accurate and respectful of Polynesian culture. Overall, the film accomplishes this.
The creators and directors Ron Clements and John Musker hired a team of people (consisting of anthropologists, native cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers from all over Polynesia) called the “Oceanic Story Trust” who helped during the making of the film to ensure that the movie accurately represented Polynesian culture. The film isn’t without criticism, though.
The most prominent problem seems to lie with the character Maui. Firstly, many considered his character design to be insulting and culturally insensitive. Critics argued that he was a bad representation of Polynesian men and it appealed to the stereotypes that they are all big and overweight. Maui’s personality also came across as narcissistic and stupid. As many pointed out, these characteristics do not match his identity in Polynesian culture. Maui is traditionally described as a “sly, lithe young man.” The creators even disregarded an important part of Maui’s story: his companion goddess, Hina.
In addition, some Polynesians who were interviewed by Buzzfeed, did not agree with the creators decision to make Moana the next chief of Motunui because “girls are not chiefs.” This may be the case, but I personally am happy that they chose to overlook this detail. It is 2017 after all, young girls should be seeing strong female characters with equal rights depicted in film.
Lastly, and perhaps the most problematic, is the way the Polynesians culture is being commercialized. For example, Disney created a Maui costume for Halloween (depicted below) with brown skin and Polynesian tattoos. The costume was rightfully criticized for being incredibly insensitive. It was even compared to “black face,” but in this case, with brown skin. After an immense amount of backlash, Disney discontinued the costume from the market and meekly apologized. Polynesians found the tattoos on the costume to be particularly insulting. Tattoos (actually a Polynesian originated term) are incredibly sacred to Polynesians. They hold great value because they display the recipient’s identity and the stories of their life; each tattoo is unique and personalized to the individual.
Despite all of the negative aspects of the film, Moana does have many good ones. The film was in fact, well researched. The creators were able to accurately capture Pacific island life. The film included accurate clothing, buildings, and other cultural aspects. The song “Where You Are” (depicted below) demonstrates many of these aspects, including the uses of the coconut tree. As the song describes “We make our nets from the fibers, the water is sweet inside, we use the leaves to build fires– we cook up the meat inside.” In addition, the flesh of the coconut can be eaten and cooked in a variety of ways, oil can be gathered when the flesh is shredded, the fibers can be made into rope, and the leaves and branches can be made into brooms and other useful items.
Most prominently, Moana does a great job representing wayfinding—the ocean navigation that ancient Polynesians used to navigate across the world. They relied solely on their knowledge, using the sky and stars as their guide; Ancient Polynesians were the best navigators of the world.
Not only does Moana include positive cultural representation, it also provides a multitude of positive themes. The film focuses on identity—a culture that loses its identity, a 16 year old girl learning who she is, and a demi-god learning what defines him. The film also depicts an incredibly positive female lead. The character Moana is strong, adventurous, brave, and she depicts incredible perseverance over and over in the film. These themes in Moana are strong and powerful and ones that would be great to expose children to, especially young girls.
Overall, Moana is a beautifully done film, and in my opinion, it does the world a great service: it exposes people to the Polynesian culture. Most people have not been educated about Polynesia; this may be the only education that they receive. Films like Moana show the audience what different circumstances were like, educating them through an entertaining medium. Moana gives the audience an outlet to learn, even if it wasn’t perfectly executed. Moana is one of the most important films of 2016 because most importantly, the film starts a conversation about Polynesian culture. The film has been getting a great deal of attention and many people are talking about it. It has mixed feedback; some people are criticizing it and others are praising it. Either way, audience members have an opportunity to read the feedback and do research of their own about the Pacific Islands. Disney’s Moana does the Western World a big favor—it reminds us that we are not the only culture, and we should open our eyes to the other beautiful cultures all around the world.