As a world traveller, I believe it’s important to fully understand other people’s cultures. Personally, I love reading other travel blogs, watching movies and documentaries about a place and scanning news articles to help me better understand all of the incredible cultures found in every corner of the globe.
This is why it’s no surprise that when I watched the Disney smash hit, Moana, my first thoughts were: “How true is this story?”, “Is this really what Pacific Islanders believe?”, and “Has the true story been mutilated in order to sell more box office tickets?”
I must confess that when watching this movie, I did enjoy it. I have always been in awe of cultures that centre around faith and a deep respect for human life and nature. That is just one of the reasons why I have always been fascinated by the Japanese culture (and hope to visit one day), and why Hawaii stole my heart.
Since watching Moana, those questions spinning around my brain on whether it is sympathetic to the true Pacific Island cultures (albeit complex and varying) have continued to come into focus within my mind. This is why I’ve chosen to do some research on whether Disney did get the story of Moana right, whether Moana is based on a true story or not, (i.e. what is the “real” story of Moana) and whether the outcome of this should alter our perceptions of the movie.
What is the story of Moana?
Thought to be set within Samoa, the story of Moana centres around a female Pacific Islander (the first central Disney character to ever have this description) who wishes to explore the world by sea. In fact, the meaning behind her name: Moana is said to be “ocean” or “deep sea” in both Maori and Hawaiian.
Crossing the barrier reef has long since been a taboo within her hometown, but she is a traveller and a wayfinder through and through.
Her people believe the demi-God, Maui stole Te Fiti’s greenstone heart, which means that ocean life is dwindling all around them. Some say Te Fiti is a personalization of the island of Tahiti, which is also pan Polynesian for “a faraway place”. This to me seems like a fair analysis.
Anyway, in the storyline, Moana sets sail to this “faraway place” to restore the island’s heart. This is with the intention that the people from her hometown may then once again live off the land and the sea, and sail beyond the barrier reef to discover new places.
Now, I do not wish to go into too much more detail on the plot as I’m not interested in producing any spoilers. If you have yet to watch Moana and want to know more, well then, you will just have to watch it.
How much research went into the Disney movie Moana?
Since being criticised of being a little “racist” after producing Aladdin in 1992, Disney have fought hard to banish that image over the years to produce movies based on cultures from all around the world with plenty of research behind them.
In response to these previous criticisms, the corporation admitted that their research for Aladdin consisted of a sole visit to a Saudi Arabian exposition at the Convention Center in Los Angeles – hardly what you could call groundbreaking cultural research.
So when it came to Moana, and this new storyline, the giant corporation were passionate on dispelling any thoughts of them not being sympathetic towards Pacific Island cultures, beliefs and values. But what exactly did they do to achieve cultural authenticity?
Back in 2011, John Musker and Ron Clements (the duo responsible for writing and directing Moana), embarked on the first of many research trips to Polynesia. They interviewed elders and communities from Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa. This was the start of a 5 year endeavour to gain cultural authenticity.
Clements himself has said: “We took a trip to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti, which really was the basis of the movie in terms of the connection to navigation, to people’s connection to their ancestry, and respect for nature – a lot of those ideas came from that first research trip, and the movie was heavily inspired by that.”
Furthermore, Disney created the “Oceanic Story Trust”, which included experts in tattoo artistry, anthropology and choreography to ensure that each element of the movie was respectful of the cultures the team had spent so long speaking to and observing.
Is Moana a true story?
With so much research going into the movie, some might believe that the story is real, that Moana really did exist somewhere down the line.
I don’t wish to burst too many bubbles right now, but Disney’s Moana is really just a movie. But that is not to say that they’re aren’t some similarities between Disney’s Moana and wider beliefs – particularly Polynesian beliefs.
One key example is the character, Maui. He is a heroic figure that can be found throughout many Polynesian myths, legends and stories. It’s nice to know Disney were aware of this before the making of the movie.
A quick discussion on Fijian, Samoan, Tahitian and Hawaiian cultures
But if the team researched the Fijian, Samoan and Tahitian cultures, why then did Hawaii play such a large part in the advertising and casting of the movie?
It is very clear from marketing campaigns that Disney had partnered with Hawaiian Airlines to help promote the movie. In fact, this partnership even went so far as the airline producing three Moana-themed Airbuses!
Furthermore, the main character of Moana was played by Auli’i Cravalho, a native Hawaiian actress. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing as Hawaii is considered a Pacific Island. I’m sure having Cravalho on board would have helped keep the team fairly true to some beliefs. And just thinking of this actually, Cravalho herself declared that she had been attending an all Hawaiian school at the time of filming, which had been teaching about Hawaiian myths (including that of Maui).
However, why then did the team spend so long researching people from Samoa, Fiji or Tahiti? We know that cultures across each of the Pacific Islands differ (as should be expected), but I’m really struggling to understand why there was such a heavy focus on this research, only for a Hawaiian actress to be cast and a Hawaiian Airlines partnership to be created.
Something doesn’t quite add up here.
This was when I discovered that back in 2011 (the same year that Clements and Musker had started their research for Moana), Disney had opened its doors to an $800 million resort: Aulani; in none other than Hawaii.
Could this all be a very long drawn out and clever marketing ploy to in fact promote this new Hawaiian resort alongside the movie?
Personally, I think the dates are too much of a coincidence, but I’m curious as to what you also think?
What are the critical perceptions of Moana?
If you’ve been keeping up with the news over the past year or so, you will know that the internet has been awash with many different views on the concept of Moana and whether it has been authentic and sympathetic to those cultures it was hoping to promote.
And if you’ve not seen this in the news, then you only need to type: the story of Moana or moana true story into Google to find all kinds of debates, news stories and articles about this movie and its representations of Polynesian cultures.
This has meant that I’ve had to do a lot of my own research in order to understand how the critical perceptions of the movie have differed from one group of people to the next, from audiences to critics, from sociologists to Polynesian natives.
Here is what I’ve gained from my research…
1. Some aspects of the Pacific culture have been understood correctly.
Namely the core values of awareness, context, relationship and respect. It is very clear to any watching the movie that these core values have been tied closely to the narrative. An awareness of the troubles in their world, an awareness of the potential causes of those troubles, plus their relationship and respect for nature have all been portrayed. Whichever way you choose to look at it, these values have been interwoven in anyway possible.
2. Maui’s representation has been offensive to some.
Although the grass skirt and necklace have been accepted by Polynesian natives, his tattoos are said to have been culturally misappropriated when it comes to merchandise supporting the movie’s launch. Many Polynesian cultures place an importance on tattoos, considering them to be deeply meaningful as well as personal and a constant reminder of that person’s values and identity. It is considered a taboo to wear markings of that which you are not spiritually or physically connected to. This means that children’s costumes associated with Maui have been thought to belittle and trivialise Polynesian beliefs and cultures because the costumes involve tattoos all over the body (as per the character in the movie).
3. Many are confused by the omittance of the Goddess Hina.
Within many Polynesian beliefs, Gods and Goddesses are in partnership with one another – a type of symmetry and balance needed in this ever changing and unbalanced world. Maui is thought to have a Goddess counterpart called Hina. But the Disney version omitted her completely, in favour of a mortal heroine. Some are confused by this misunderstanding of their Gods and Goddesses, thus marking the Moana film as unbalanced and culturally inauthentic – something the corporation was really trying to avoid.
4. A hometown built around the idea of coconuts has not been the way to go.
Within the movie Moana, the people of her hometown collect coconuts to eat. However, coconuts have been previously attributed to describe Polynesian individuals (in a very negative way). Thus, the idea behind coconuts should have probably been avoided in the movie.
5. Polynesian cultures differ far too much to be included in just one movie.
There are many islands that are considered Polynesian, including (but not limited to): Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, New Zealand, Easter Island and Tonga. However, as should be expected, the beliefs throughout these cultures, although similar in some ways, do differ in many other ways. Thus, trying to include so many of these cultures within just one short Disney movie has not really done them justice. Perhaps Disney should have settled on just one culture rather than trying to tie them in with one another? Could this have helped improve the cultural authenticity of Moana and ultimately, Moana’s story?
There are many more theories about the movie and its cultural portrayals, but these five points have been very prevalent in each criticism (either positive or negative) that I have read.
But should any of this affect the story the movie is telling?
At the end of the day, Moana is a children’s movie (and a popular one at that). Should any of this really matter?
Firstly, yes. This was Disney’s attempt at countering any racist perceptions of the corporation, so surely it should have been an important project to get right? This is particularly true when we think of just how much research Disney did try to do before making the movie.
We must also remember that teaching different ways of life and cultures to children can never be a bad thing. It’s a shame more children around the world do not know enough about other cultures. Some may never leave their hometown (even as adults). Thus, any attempt at showcasing different cultures and beliefs will help to dispel any confusion or misunderstanding of other people in the world, right? This is something I search for when travelling: to understand other people and their cultures better.
The movie (and the Polynesian cultures) centre around a strong respect for nature. This is something I think we severely miss within the Western world. In my view, any article, YouTube video, movie, any medium really that tries to show us why we should all care for the world more is going to be a hit with me.
Another key concept within the movie was in travelling, exploring and wayfinding. Aren’t we all travellers? Even those who have never once left their hometown are sure to be descended from travellers who sought new lands, new cultures, foods, materials and new experiences.
If we place our criticisms about the movie to one side just for a moment, this then says to me that there are two key morals that the movie helped to showcase: 1) care for, respect and love the planet, and 2) remember to seek new experiences, new cultures and new environments. Quite simply, we are all travellers. We are all wayfinders (even if only in descendance).
Now you’ve heard everything that I have to say about whether Disney got the story of Moana right – over to you. What do you think? And what do you search for when travelling the world? Feel free to drop a few thoughts down in the comments…
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