BYU-Hawaii student and faculty reactions differ on Disney’s newest animated film, “Moana,” which was released into theaters Thanksgiving weekend and places Polynesian culture in the world spotlight.
Critics have voiced their concerns to Disney for culturally appropriating Polynesian stories. One such critic is BYUH Anthropology Professor Tevita Ka‘ili. He argued Disney is profiting from the stories of Polynesian people by making “Moana” while the actual people who are connected to those stories get little to no benefit.
“This is a big display of our culture,” Ka‘ili said. “I wanted people to see the complexity of who we are as a people. Unfortunately, it just didn’t come out at the end, or at least the way I wanted it to.”
Ka‘ili has written Facebook posts and articles for the Huffington Post on the validity of Disney’s use of cultural stories from the Pacific. Ka‘ili’s biggest critique is of Disney’s depiction of the demi-god Maui as an “egotistical buffoon.” He said Maui doesn’t need his fishhook to shapeshift. He also thought the name for the giant crab, Tamatoa, didn’t fit well with the name’s meaning. “Tamatoa is supposed to mean a warrior and I don’t know why they would give that name to a crab. A tamatoa, a person who is a real warrior, is someone who is respectable and people look up to the person. It just didn’t fit well with the crab,” Ka‘ili said.
“[Disney] did try to learn as much as they could about the culture, which was mainly Pacific Islanders. There was actually a small group of people representing the Pacific as consultants, the Oceanic Story Trust. They made an attempt to bring different elements of the different cultures into the movie,” Ka‘ili said.
Peter Sciretta, a writer for slashfilm.com, took a closer look into how Disney created the Oceanic Story Trust. Sciretta said, “[Moana] is set in ancient Polynesia, so Disney wanted to honor the people and culture of the South Pacific Islands. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker took research trips to many islands in the South Pacific, and those visits changed the vision of what the film would become. They had gone in expecting to be wowed by the beauty of the islands, but it was the people they met during these trips that inspired the film significantly.”
As a result of these experiences, Disney Animation organized three trips to the South Pacific Islands: to Tahiti and Samoa in October 2011; to Bora Bora, New Zealand, Moorea and other islands in March 2014; and again to Bora Bora, Moorea, and Tahiti in November 2014.
“It was through these visits that they began to form ‘the Oceanic Story Trust,’ which is kind of like the Pixar brain trust for this story, but instead [they’re] in charge of ensuring the people of the region were depicted authentically.
“Polynesia is a region that has been misrepresented in the media, and they wanted to make sure that doesn’t happen with this movie. They would not only fact check any story beat, but almost every aspect of the film from the music to costumes,” Sciretta said.
Ka‘ili followed the film’s production closely and said there were some aspects of the movie where Disney portrayed Polynesian culture accurately. He said the different motifs found on the characters’ clothes as well as the design carved into the canoe were authentic. The wayfinding in the story, which was inspired by Hokule‘a Navigator Nainoa Thompson, is also accurate, Ka‘ili said.
He said he would give the movie three stars out of 10. While Disney has done a lot to tell the story of Pacific navigation using Polynesian legends and themes, Ka‘ili feels Polynesians should be the ones who tell their own story.
“I wanted to like it, but it fell short. I think we should tell our story our own way and not filter it through Disney,” he said. “We, as Polynesians, have so many rich stories. Our stories are very complex, rich and beautiful. That’s something we should celebrate.”
Kelela Mo‘o, a freshman majoring in computer science from Laie, said, “I want the Pacific Islanders to take advantage of this spotlight to really educate people about their home island culture and current issues. We can’t expect Disney to tell our own story for us. We need to tell our own story.”
Mo’o, who is Tongan, Tahitian, and Hawaiian, added, “There were parts that were authentic and there were parts that Disney could’ve tried harder on. I hope that ‘Moana is the beginning of Pacific Island culture being portrayed in mainstream media.”
Ian Nakayama, a sophomore from Kahuku studying psychology, had a positive view on the film. He said, “As a Native Hawaiian, as a person who grew up in Hawaii, and as someone who attended a Hawaiian school, I liked ‘Moana.’
“As any movie, there are many good things and many bad things that were represented in the film. But I have to say that the good outweighed the bad, and the film delivered a very powerful message.”
Nakayama said he thinks Maui’s character was misrepresented, “but that is completely overshadowed by the true meaning and message ‘Moana’ is sharing,” he said.
Nakayama said he believes the film will have a positive impact on the awareness of Pacific culture overall. He said, “It was also written in a way that once you saw it, you would want to research more about the history of the Pacific.
It was a fictional movie made for families, and I believe that it did a good job in being that. However, it also did a good job in sharing what Polynesia is to those who otherwise have little to no interaction with it.”
With regards to the film’s cultural accuracy, voice actress for Moana, Auli‘i Cravalho, said, “Anyone who hears about a movie being inspired by their culture will want it to be done right. I can honestly say I’m so proud of working on this film because it’s done so well.”
Kaulana Triphahn, a close friend of Cravalho, said, “I liked that [Disney] did their research and tried to stay true to the culture of Polynesia.” Triphanh was invited by Cravalho to attend the movie premiere in California. “I think it represents the Polynesian culture well, but also it was a mash up of all of [the Polynesian cultures], not necessarily one in particular. It had a lot of validity in my eyes. They especially did a good job explaining wayfinding,” she added.
Providing the voice of Maui in “Moana” enabled Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to share his culture. “People around the world have asked me about my culture a lot. It’s a great opportunity for me to talk about growing up in Hawaii and the islands. I’m always very proud to share culture with the world, especially my experiences in Hawaii,” he said.
Cravalho said, “I grew up on an island. I’m very connected to my culture through my schooling and through living on the island.”
Proponents of the movie felt even though the film may not be completely culturally accurate, Disney’s aim was to market the film towards children. Triphahn said, “I would tell people ‘Go watch it!’ It’s fun and entertaining and a great movie. I think people need to keep in mind that it is a kids’ animated film, so even with the true stuff, there’s silly and imagination stuff in there, too. I loved it and hope others do too.”
Ka‘ili said the film was cinematically appealing. “It was beautiful. The island, the stream, the ocean – animation-wise, I think that it was beautiful.”
Music for the film was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, director and composer of Broadway’s hit musical “Hamilton,” in collaboration with Opetaia Foa‘i of Te Vaka, an oceanic music group. Miranda said he spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand where he began to learn more about Polynesian culture.
At the world premiere of ‘Moana,’ Miranda said in an interview, “It takes a village to build a movie like this, and I think now more than ever. It’s wonderful to see a story about a young woman who is a hero who saves her family, saves the island and saves the world. Auli‘i was destined to play Moana and her performance speaks for itself.”
Osnat Shurer, a producer for the film, said, “Moana is an incredible character who is made up of so much courage, and yet, compassion and empathy. She’s a female heroine like we’ve never had before.”
Cravalho said, “I was really blessed to be a part of this film. I think the journey Moana goes on is something everyone can connect to.” Cravalho is a junior at Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama. She auditioned for the part two years ago when she was a freshman in high school.
According to Forbes, Disney’s “Moana” broke box office records by making in $2.6 million on opening preview night.