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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 loved 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.

Moana true story... or is it?

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.

Polynesian Hula Dancers

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.

Polynesian Flowers

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. 

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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?

Polynesian Hula Dancer

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.

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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.

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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.

Kate's Tree, Hawaii

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).

Hawaii from above

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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Did Disney Get the Story of Moana Right?

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3 thoughts on “Did Disney Tell the True Story of Moana?

  1. Gerard says:

    Personally, I think a few slights are either acceptable or even necessary. I’m very sided with “reality is never an insult unless made as such in context.”
    *Coconuts being made as a Polynesian insult? As long as it isn’t one in the film through context, I’m good.
    **Maui’s tattoos. They were personal and meaningful to HIM in the film’s context. HE gave island lands, better air and sky, produced greater quality sun and even provided the dietary staple of coconuts AS GIFTS TO HUMANITY: tattoos showing incredible personal feats of selflessness by the neglected hero missing his lost place in humanity. Trophies and somber memories.
    ***Mortal girl? At the end of the day, it’s a film meant for kids. They will of course idolize and imitate, so keeping the protagonist relatable is also important. The legend wasn’t 100% transcribed, but it wasn’t meant for Polynesia. It was meant for the Western World. It was never going to be 100%; sacrifices would be necessary for making it for KIDS. No part of the true legend was damaged, simply ommitted, and the premise of the legend was still carried out in the absence of any Goddess. This isn’t a documentary on seafaring Pacific Islanders, or interviewed HBO special like “Band of Brothers.” It was a kids film. (USA) Pokémon Heroes was meant to exist as Venice: Waterway canals, gondolas, walkways and building design, and even Italian style accordion music, focus on art and Di Vinci style technologies and devices. Flaws? Team Rocket eating American style spaghetti, racing in the canals as a regular event, being the ISLAND of Alto Mare. I think we’ll all live with the losses.
    ****ANYTHING INVOLVING MERCHANDISING isn’t in-film related. Even if products and resort advertising were the reasons for the film, they didn’t themselves make the film. Research, maximized (imperfect) authenticity to cultural legendary tales and customs…These built the movie, the movie built the resort. Order of operations.
    CONCLUSION: I’m 25 and love the songs “We know the way,” and of course, “Youre welcome!” I truly felt what Moana went through from expectation to crash coarse to purpose, and still do. I personally level with Maui; always doing for others, under abnormal stress, and still never finding people enjoying HIM. Only his gifts. Story from legend? Yeah, not 100% Never would’ve been. Get Polynesian to write, direct, act and produce if you want pin point accuracy. If this should be split into several films for authenticity, I’m glad they cut or altered. ANYTHING can be so extended, but you lose the viewers attention, and sequels are naturally terrific or mulled at 2, and keeping level or diving from one of those,states at 3+. They had one shot to make it as authentic and entertaining as possible, and I think they nailed it.

  2. Gerard says:

    If the comment sounded (read?) disrespectful, I dont mean it. Nonverbalized communication is tough. CAPS isnt angry to me without !!!s. It’s just marking stressed enunciation. I enjoyed this article and the rebuttal to be perfectly honest, so please observe ^^^ with a solid dollop of Salt…Or a cup of “Ocean Tap,” to be more subliminally relevant.

    1. Wow, thanks for such a detailed comment, Gerard! Please don’t stress over how your comment has come across. I totally understand the use of caps in helping to get your point across. If you’d used !!!’s on the other hand, well then, we may very well be having a different discussion right now. (Totally kidding by the way, I actually quite like an exclamation mark)… 😉

      Anyway, one of the reasons why I got into this whole blogging malarkey was for discussions exactly like this one. It’s always interesting hearing other people’s perspectives on things. For instance, your first comment on the use of coconuts – I’d never have looked at this in the same way, but your point is a totally valid one. Which leads me on nicely to the rest of your points – all totally sound arguments. And I love the fact that my article prompted such a passionate response 😉

      For what it’s worth, I also loved this movie. Disney may have had flack in the past (haven’t we all?), but they are still my all time favourite chain of movies (is chain the right word? Probably not…but you get me.) I will always say it’s a great sign if something can spark some kind of debate because it means people care about it. And hey, if that thing can then spark a discussion on one of my blogs like this one evidently has, well then, that’s pretty damn cool as well!

      And as one last note, I personally think the song: “How Far I’ll Go” beats the pants off of all the other Moana songs… I’ve also recently seen a version that uses all kinds of different languages to sing it, and that’s even more cool in my opinion… 😉

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