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Everyone who knows me knows I love animated films, and Disney has always been at the heart of that love. In 2014, Walt Disney Pictures announced that it had begun development on a new film entitled Moana that would draw inspiration from Polynesian mythology. What tickled my curiosity about Moana was how the team behind it would treat this uniquely Polynesian story. Disney is known for being culturally and racially insensitive in some of its films, most commonly critiqued is the 1992 hit Aladdin which plays on many Arab stereotypes to influence the story’s progression. When John Musker and Ron Clements, one of Disney’s top directorial duos who had also directed Aladdin, were announced as Moana‘s directors I was apprehensive, hoping that they would be more culturally sensitive in the latest Disney instalment.

Moana is the eponymous tale of the daughter of the chief of a small Polynesian island named Motunui. As a child, Moana is chosen by the ocean to find the missing demigod Maui and return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a rock he had stolen centuries before which is wreaking havoc across the Pacific. However, her people have rules against going out to sea and Moana is encouraged to stay behind by her father. It isn’t until her people notice that the island’s vegetation is dying and that fish are scarce that Moana decides that it is her duty to her people to help restore balance, setting off to find the demigod Maui.

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In terms of the film’s writing, Moana takes the social cues from 2013’s Frozen and 2016’s Zootopia in creating a Disney princess story that is very different from the earlier reiterations of their heroine. Moana is written as the strong and fiercely independent rightful heir to her island’s chiefdom. Moana joins the ranks of other semi-rebellious princesses like Mulan, Pocahontas and most recently Merida. The biggest difference however between her and previous independent princesses is that her gender doesn’t factor into how she is viewed. Her father’s reluctance to let people fish or swim beyond the reef comes from a place of protection towards his people and not just his daughter. Musker and Clements have gone on record saying that they didn’t want gender to play a large role in the film, stating that the narrative was more about Moana finding herself than battling a patriarchal structure. The world Moana hails from is therefore viewed as supportive and equal, the security with which she will take over the chiefdom from her father asserting that. As a film, Moana also takes steps forwards with what Frozen had somewhat threatened to do back in 2013 as it is the first Disney film to feature a Disney ‘princess’ without also introducing a Disney prince (I am not counting 2012’s Brave as, although Merida is considered within the Disney Princess canon, the film was a Pixar production). Moana’s journey does not include a love story and I was incredibly relieved to witness that. When the audience is first introduced to Maui, his characterisation plays similar to that of Naveen in 2009’s Princess and the Frog. He is cocky and bullheaded and needs Moana to bring him back down to earth. However, Maui’s role never becomes romantic, playing more of a fraternal character to Moana. The two help each other discover their strengths and weaknesses and I believe the film would have been incredibly undercut if a love interest had been introduced into the mix as well.

I also applaud the writers and producers for exploring a mythology and history that hasn’t been vastly spread on a large scale to a non-Polynesian audience. Musker and Clements were initially drawn to Polynesian mythology by the demigod Maui because of his ability to shape-shift and his uncanny trickster nature that would serve the visual medium wonderfully. The directing duo traveled to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti among other islands to meet with linguists and historians as well as take in the physical aspects of Polynesia and its people, even creating an Oceanic Trust of academic and cultural advisers. Despite close attention to cultural significance and imagery however, certain aspects of the film have sparked anger from those of Polynesian, most notably the characterisation of Maui himself. While Moana’s animation was applauded for introducing a character who is curvier and looks healthier than the previously waifish princesses, many have alluded that Disney fell into American stereotypes of Polynesian peoples in creating a thicker and almost “obese” demigod. However, Maui is portrayed as strong for function and not appearance, resembling professional strongmen as well as Dwayne Johnson’s own grandfather Peter Maiva, a Samoan wrestler. Various people have come forward saying that Maui’s bulk is indicative of his strength including Samoan comic book artist Michael Mulipola who, after studying the design of each character, said Maui’s proportions, if anything, have been exaggerated to make him more of a side-kick character, cementing Moana’s role as hero. Maui’s design has also inspired many online fans to defend Disney’s depiction of Maui and argue that his bulk does not negate his pure power. It’s fair to say therefore that, although Maui may not be depicted as strong in the same way as heroes like Hercules, his bulk is due to muscle and not fat.

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MAUI DEMONSTRATES HIS STRENGTH

Musker and Clements also worked closely with experts to ensure that their portrayal of South Pacific culture be accurate. The team behind Moana was also insistent in casting voice actors who share cultural heritage with the characters in the film. After an open casting call, fourteen year old Hawaiian high school student Auli’i Cravalho was cast as Moana in 2014. The young actress who made her debut in the Disney film is of native Hawaiian descent and was born and raised in the US state. Dwayne Johnson and Nicole Scherzinger were also brought onto the production to voice Maui and Moana’s mother Sina respectively, alongside New Zealand actors Rachel House, Temuera Morrison and Jemaine Clement who all share Maori descent. Aland Tudyk is the only non POC actor in the cast, voicing the bit role of Hei-Hei, Moana’s troubled chicken companion.

Since I am by far an expert on Polynesian culture or history, I can personally take no issue with the portrayal of South Pacific customs in Moana. Where I can take issue however is in the traditionally cinematographic aspects of Disney’s latest film. By far one of the most beautiful Disney films, 3D animation definitely serves the world of Moana well, able to capture not only the natural beauty in the movement of water and flora but also create the mystical and mythological aspects of the world the film takes place in. As much as I have been rooting for another renaissance of traditionally animated Disney films ever since The Princess and the FrogMoana‘s beauty lies in the animators’ ability to mimic the South Pacific’s beauty on screen. However, there was something in the film that felt short and almost rushed. Although the music, written primarily by New Zealander musician Opetaia Foa’i, american composer Mark Mancina and broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda was beautiful, it did let me down a bit. There wasn’t a large enough diversity of songs in the film’s repertoire in my opinion and the various reprises of Moana’s defining song ‘How Far I’ll Go’ came across as almost lazy. What is most curious is that the deluxe version of the soundtrack shows a variety of other demo songs that seem to have been declined for the film’s final cut. After the success of Frozen and it’s hit song ‘Let It Go,’ which not only won the Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as becoming the year’s fifth best selling song after selling 10.9 million copies, I understand the importance that may have been put on the musical creative team to create a song that will perform as well. I also feel that many of the songs, particularly the instrumental tracks used for scoring purposes, did not use enough Polynesian influence as well as oftentimes sounding too similar to tracks from Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton (don’t get me wrong, I love Hamilton with all my heart but certain songs evoked the Broadway stage more than Polynesia for me.)

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MOANA IS ONE OF DISNEY’S MOST VISUALLY BREATHTAKING FILMS

Despite my minor issues with the film, I absolutely adored Moana. I am incredibly grateful to have been exposed to a culture and history I was unaware of and am delighted to see that Disney is working in a direction to use it’s platform to help educate audiences. I am also incredibly happy to see Disney’s apparent determination to lead its films into a more open and embracing space, featuring characters and narratives that shy away from traditional Disney characteristics including the heteronormative love interest trope. I hope that Disney continues on the path of Moana in creating a more inclusive and diverse field in which many children and adults can see themselves mirrored in new characters (#GiveElsaAGirlfriend).

I would love for anyone to leave their opinions of the film down below, particularly if you are of South Pacific heritage, as well as include any links to articles or media you think are worth reading on Moana or its reception as I am having difficulty finding non-Western articles on the subject and would love to educate myself more. And for those of you who read until the end, thank you.