Moana is a story inspired by Polynesian culture. In their attempt to immerse themselves in the many cultures of Polynesia, the production team spent just a few weeks actually in the Pacific working with a group of anthropologists and elders ("The Oceanic Brain Trust" formed by Disney). It’s unlikely that anyone could grasp the complexity of one culture in the span of a few weeks, much less the enormity of the many cultures of the Pacific.
Polynesia encompasses roughly a thousand islands and several individual nations with unique cultures and their own languages. Moana displays the cultures of Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Maori culture, and Tonga. While two of the films’ five screenwriters were born and raised in Hawai'i they are white, not Polynesian. As far as our research found, only two Polynesians were involved in the development of the story. The director, Taika Waititi (who is Maori), wrote the first draft of the script, which was drastically rewritten by the white directors and screenwriters and one of the story artists, David Derrick, who is Samoan.
At the end of the day, Moana is a film largely shaped by people who aren’t Polynesian. It’s a commercial product created for a global audience, to make money. So far it’s succeeding.
The objective of these reviews is to demonstrate that Polynesians are not a monolith. We will each have our own unique experience of Moana. All of them are valid and likely extremely complicated, especially for those of us who live or were raised far away from our islands. Many of us carry deep wounds due to a long history of colonial exploitation and cultural genocide. Those wounds never fully heal; for many of us Moana has reopened them.
One Hawaiian's review of Moana
By Celeste Noelani
From the first press release announcing Disney's intent to create a Pasifika princess, I was both elated and uncertain. I love Disney, but that love has always come at the price of ignoring the ways Disney gets my culture wrong. Disney has long used imagery of the Pacific, and most of that imagery has been garish rather than representative. Understanding that Moana was basically a feature-length commercial for the Aulani resort on my O'ahu homeland, all I could do was hope that Disney acted with aloha and tried to be as faithful as they could to the cultures they said they were trying to respect.
Ambivalent as I was, I took my children to see Moana on a quiet afternoon about a week after its record-breaking release. I cleared my mind of preconceived notions, of all the reviews I had read in the week since its release. I let myself watch it as my children did, completely immersed in the magic that has made me a Disney fangirl for basically all my life.
It really was magical. Every frame gorgeously rendered, every hair on Maui's egotistical head an entity unto itself. Moana's own flowing black mane was so real that I knew the strands would feel like my grandmother's coarse-soft curls. And the ocean! From the opening scenes of Moana's playful relationship with her sentient namesake, I was completely transfixed. Having grown up swimming in waters so much like those surrounding Motonui, I gasped to see it so faithfully and artistically portrayed.
I also thrilled at depictions of traditional island life. I wiped away tears and covered my mouth with my hands so I wouldn't actually yell chee-hoo! during "Where You Are Now."
I wasn't the only one delighted. When the tattooing sequence flashed by, my teenage son leaned over to me with a wide grin. "That's the kind of tattoo you want to get!" he said.
I immediately shushed him out of habit (no talking in the theater!) but quickly regretted it. This was the first time my kids were seeing their cultures depicted in a Disney movie, too, and I should have let them call out everything that excited them. And maybe I should have let myself chee-hoo.
Getting excited about all Moana had to offer was important, because as I expected, there was also a lot that wasn't exciting. While I respect him greatly, I was never convinced that Lin-Manuel Miranda was the best person to handle Moana's score. While there are some incredibly powerful moments, none of the musical numbers are as solid as songs in previous Disney films; Maui's theme song "You're Welcome" is downright terrible. Someone as energetic as Dwayne Johnson should have been electric as a larger-than-life demigod; instead, we got a slapstick buffoon singing a tired ditty that made me glad when it was over. And the entire sequence with Tamatoa the crab is an acid trip (and a boring one at that) stuck into the middle of the movie—because Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted to honor the recently passed David Bowie, rather than the Polynesian cultures the film is supposed to represent. Songs about Pasifika culture and rooted in Pasifika music ("Where You Are Now" and "We Know the Way") are clearly superior because they immerse the audience in Moana's universe, rather than distract from it.
Fortunately, Disney animators are among the best in the world and their vision helped carry the story whenever the music fell flat. Much of the film is about Maui teaching Moana how to sail. "It's called wayfinding," he tells her, and holds his hand before him against the night sky in the traditional wayfinding angle. This visual is repeated throughout the film—and each time it was, I felt a rush of familiarity I am not accustomed to experience with big budget movies. And while Disney's depiction of Polynesian voyaging, or even Pasifika peoples in general, is incomplete, it was still good to see an abbreviated version.
As we left the theater, I asked my kids what they thought of the movie. My daughter talked about swimming in the ocean with Aunty Joy, the only one who has so far been able to get her to dip her head beneath the West O'ahu waves. My son asked about Polynesian wayfinding and I suggested he read a book I have at home about Hawaiians relearning how to navigate in the traditional way after having forgotten the technique generations ago. My husband asked me what I thought about the film, and I was quiet for a moment. Finally, I had an answer.
"It was beautiful," I told him. "And it'll give me a lot to talk about with the kids."
And that, I think, is the best thing I could hope for in a Disney movie about my culture. Moana was more than I expected, but less than I hoped. It could have been so much better and so much worse. Ultimately it was one movie made by one studio not particularly known for getting it right on all the cultural bells and whistles. But it does have some amazing cultural imagery that I'm glad is out there in the world. Beyond that, it's a film I wish I could have taken my grandmother to see. She would have loved the story. And she would have particularly loved seeing the loving way Disney rendered Moana's hair. It's familiar hair to us, after all. It's nice to see it finally get its time on the big screen.
Remembering Who I am
I am biracial Tongan, raised by my white family. While I spent my early childhood in Hawai’i, I have never been to Tonga, I don’t speak the language. After we moved to the mainland I was placed in speech therapy, lost my accent, and began to be coded by others as either Native American or just "not white." The only other tongans I saw, other than my family, were a few football players on TV and the pop group The Jets.
One of the hardest aspects of writing this review is trying to explain what it’s like to never see yourself reflected in any media, ever. It’s a subtle and insidious kind of gaslighting. You don’t just feel invisible, you begin to doubt your own identity.
Watching Moana, seeing glimpses of my culture and animated characters who actually look like me, it felt like the world had been in black and white and suddenly I was seeing in color.
For me, Moana is about diaspora. The people of Motonui's lost connection with their past resonated deeply with me. As did Moana’s love of the ocean. The scene for "We Know the Way," depicting Wayfinding, and with its message of cultural pride, felt like it was for me.
There were a lot of things for me to love and relate to in Moana. While I enjoyed most of the songs, the stunning animation, and the underlying themes, there were a lot flaws that kept it from being a great Disney film. Poor pacing, a convoluted plot and unnecessary scenes, like a musical number that only seems to exist solely to pay tribute to David Bowie. (Who, last time I checked, wasn’t Polynesian.)
One of the biggest problems with Moana is that it’s two different stories smashed together. Moana could have easily accomplished everything she needed to do in the story without Maui. So why include Maui? So they could cast Dwayne Johnson and capitalize on one of the most well know Polynesian-American actors, while still drawing in the loyal audiences for Disney Princess films. They got the best of both worlds, but sadly the two distinctly different stories that could have been told got turned into a single less cohesive one.
Oh, and that so-feminist lack of a love story is most definitely as much a marketing move as casting Johnson, but it’s also an easy way to avoid the awkwardness of having a forty-year-old man and a fourteen-year-old girl play a romantic couple. This also explains Maui’s depiction in the film as the "funny fat guy."
To be fair, Maui isn’t the only character in the film who is larger than the white western status quo allows. Despite this there are no fat jokes or even mentions of bodies, fatness, or even physical beauty in the film. Maui is active, athletic, and proud of his body. He’s also half naked for the entire time he’s onscreen. If anything Moana is one of the more body positive Disney films out there, just by presenting a variety of body shapes without making any commentary on them.
But at the end of the day, a sacred figure like Maui should have had his own story that was truer to who he really is, instead of a sidekick with a manufactured backstory that frames him as an emotionally stunted clown. There is no reason Moana herself couldn’t have had romance and adventure, allowing Polynesian girls a chance to see that they are worthy of love as well as power. And giving Polynesian boys a protagonist like Moana to whom they could relate.
Disney has unparalleled power to tell stories that dominate the global view of a people. We have to be honest about the negative aspects of that kind of power, especially when money guides those decisions. Moana is good, but it is also a commercial product primarily made for a global audience.
It’s taken a lot of reflection for me understand why our elders and anthropologists told the filmmakers to mash up multiple Polynesian cultures: they made the best of a bad situation. If strangers have the power to tell our stories anyway, why not ensure it’s a positive message addressed to every Polynesian child who sees it? A love letter to remind them who they are. To remind them they are descended from the greatest voyagers ever to sail the seas of this planet.
This is a story that shows how Polynesian women are the backbone of our families and culture, and guardians of knowledge, much like Moana’s grandmother. It reminds us that once, before white men came to our islands, women were voyagers and leaders too. This story gives them a hero who looks like them: a Polynesian girl, a hero who was chosen not by blood or destiny, but by the Ocean—because she is a compassionate protector.
The Polynesian people involved with the film did not have a lot of power over what story was told, but their influence on how it was told is unmistakable. I think it is irresponsible for anyone who is not Polynesian to dismiss or downplay the monumental impact Moana has on the depiction of Polynesians in mass media.
Moana isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. A girl shouldn’t have to save the world to be valuable. Sometimes the world changes in small ways, like a forty-one-year-old woman in a movie theatre looking up at the screen and seeing a mirror for the first time in her life. That change has immeasurable value.
Moana is a first step, but the journey is far from over. We must continue to address the issue of who has the power to decide which stories are told and who controls how they’re told—so more people can be reminded of who they are and that their stories are worth telling.