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Moana: progressive paean to Polynesia – or another of Disney's cultural blunders?

The Guardian The Guardian 26/09/2016 Ben Child
The Polynesian god Maui in the Disney film Moana: Fat, or just powerful? The Polynesian god Maui in the Disney film Moana. © YouTube/Disney Fat, or just powerful? The Polynesian god Maui in the Disney film Moana.

The final jape carried out by the trickster demigod Māui sounds more like the stuff of horror movies than a Disney children’s animation. According to Māori mythology (and Māui is a figure across many cultures with Polynesian roots, so the story differs depending on who’s telling it) the shapeshifting hero was crushed between a set of obsidian teeth in the vagina of the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-pō, while in the form of a worm. He had been trying to travel through the body of the deity while she slept in an attempt to bring immortality to mankind.

Disney has gone in a different direction with its depiction of the mythological figure in its forthcoming film Moana, at least going by the 25 minutes of footage presented to journalists in London last Friday. Here, Māui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) appears to have retained his famously mischievous disposition and ability to change into different creatures. The rest is absent. But there are still teeth in the tale, as the studio has discovered following a run of negative publicity ahead of the film’s November release.

In June, reports from New Zealand suggested that some public figures of Polynesian background were less than impressed with the depiction of Māui as a bulky and oversized figure. New Zealand MP Jenny Salesa, who is of Tongan heritage, shared a picture on her Facebook account describing the film’s hero as “half pig, half hippo”. Then last week, Disney confirmed it would stop selling a boy’s Māui costume that some Pacific Islanders had compared to blackface, because the outfit was designed to resemble Māui’s heavily tattooed, musclebound bare torso.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that producer Osnat Shurer was keen to flag up Disney’s careful research into Polynesian myth ahead of making the film, with directors John Musker and Ron Clements (known for hand-drawn Disney classics such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) having visited Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti in 2012 in order to immerse themselves in local culture. Moana also features actors of Polynesian heritage in several of the main roles, including Johnson himself, Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, Temuera Morrison of Once Were Warriors and 14-year-old Hawaiian-American Auli’i Cravalho as the title character.

In the film, Moana is the determined teenage daughter of a chief, who discovers that her people’s history as ocean navigators has been hidden from her and sets out to find the enforcer of their single-island entrapment, Māui. 

On screen, Johnson’s character appears more powerful than obese: there is certainly no wobbling flesh on show, merely a remarkable sense of dexterity and elastic grace for such an enormous fellow – but then he is a god. Moana, as Shurer has remarked, also has a healthy body shape, Disney perhaps learning from the backlash against the tiny waists of Frozen’s Anna and Elsa. We’re also told our hero will not be given a romance in the new film, which seems like another vital step in the studio’s march towards developing an empowered vision of young women.

Moana’s songs are co-written by the Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Pulitzer, Emmy, Tony and Grammy-winning composer currently winning plaudits for Hamilton. But we’ll have to wait until November to find out if there’s another Let It Go lurking on the soundtrack.

It would be a pity, in some ways, if the controversies over Māui and cultural appropriation were to overshadow Moana, because Disney appears to have dipped its toes into Polynesian mythology and come away with a refreshingly vibrant and neoteric take on the animated fantasy. The demigod’s tattoos come thrillingly to life, gorgeously hand-drawn 2D animation slotting cleverly into the CGI visuals, as he regales his young companion with tales of past glories. From journeys into the underworld to battles with giant fire monsters and coconut-armoured pirate creatures known as Kakamora, the pair’s adventures also represent a liberating shift away from the traditional basis of these films in northern European legend.

Not to mention that the very concept of cultural appropriation is a tangled one. Did, for instance, Dreamworks “steal” eastern martial arts for the Kung Fu Panda movies? And if so, why are those films so popular in the world’s most populous nation that China has rejigged its entire film industry to try to produce its own equivalent? Should Disney be held to account for borrowing liberally from Japanese culture on the recent Big Hero Six?

Perhaps Disney in 2016 simply needs to be a little more careful when borrowing stories from foreign cultures, especially as it is the the studio that gave us the savage, pidgin English-speaking subhuman “Red Indians” in 1953’s Peter Pan, and Sebastian the workshy Caribbean crab in 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

It will be interesting to see what the reaction to Moana is from people of Polynesian backgrounds when the movie itself hits UK cinemas on 2 December (23 November in the US). Only then may the rest of us know whether Māui’s adventures are a guilt-free experience.

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