At last the perfect Disney movie, say critics

Island life: Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson voice Moana’s two main characters.

After 80 years of film-making, Disney has finally nailed it with Moana, say some. But others accuse the producers of culture theft and of exploiting Polynesian culture for profit.

In a lot of ways, Disney’s newest animated film Moana fits perfectly into the company’s long tradition. It recasts a cultural legend into a family-friendly coming-of-age story. It has a soaring soundtrack, a plucky heroine, and an ‘animal sidekick’.

And yet the film, which is set on the Polynesian islands in the Pacific, also contains many firsts. Moana is Disney’s first Polynesian princess, and her story is the first princess film with no romantic subplot. It is also the first time that Disney assembled a team of experts to advise them on the culture that they were showing on screen.

The ‘Oceanic Story Trust’ was made up of historians, linguists and choreographers from the islands. They advised on everything from traditional dance moves to tattoo designs to cooking techniques. They cut a scene where Moana throws some coconuts, because wasting the sacred fruits was ‘absolutely offensive’.

It paid off. ‘Moana is refreshingly free from groan-inducing stereotypes,’ concluded one critic. It is deeply rooted in the music, mythology and history of the Pacific islands. Many Polynesians have expressed pride, even shed tears, during a scene which celebrates wayfinding — an ancient art of navigation which helped Polynesians find and colonise thousands of small islands in a vast ocean, only in canoes and with the stars to guide them.

The glowing reviews will be a relief to Disney; it has long been criticised for how it portrays non-white characters. The ‘Red Men’ in Peter Pan looked like primitive caricatures of Native Americans; in The Little Mermaid, the crustacean Sebastian was accused of making Jamaicans sound lazy and ‘work shy’; by the time Aladdin was released in 1992, a New York Times headline shrugged: ‘It’s Racist, but Hey, It’s Disney.’

Even Moana has not escaped controversy. The demigod Mauri has been blasted as an ‘obese’ stereotype of Polynesian men. And Disney was forced to stop selling a costume for the same character which included dark skin and tattoos — this, said critics, was ‘brownface’.

Finding your way

Despite these mishaps, Moana is being praised as a big step forward. It is right that Disney, a hugely influential company, tries to show lots of different cultures, not just Europe and North America. Kids who look like Moana deserve to see their stories on screen — and kids who don’t will get a great introduction to Polynesia.

But many remain unsure. Moana was still directed by two white men. It is a ‘Disneyfication’ of Polynesia: it merges various island traditions, so that none are truly accurate. ‘Having brown advisers doesn’t make it a brown story,’ says indigenous rights activist Tina Ngata. ‘It’s still very much a white person’s story.’

You Decide

  1. Is Disney racist?
  2. Is it wrong for storytellers to use cultures that are not their own?

Activities

  1. Write a review of the last Disney movie you saw. Include a paragraph on the culture it represented.
  2. Research an aspect of Polynesian life that you are interested in. Then give a short presentation that explains your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“All art is theft.”

Pablo Picasso

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m confused — what does ‘cultural appropriation’ mean?
It means using someone else’s culture for yourself, and can connote exploitation and dominance. It could include telling a story rooted in Polynesian mythology, or wearing a Native American headdress at a Halloween party. Whether it is always bad — or always okay — is a far more complicated debate. If in doubt, be respectful of the culture you are exploring by learning about its history and listening to its people.
Why does a kids’ movie matter so much?
Partly because so many will watch it: Moana took $81m in its opening weekend in America. But also because we all retain a strong connection to the films we watched as children. They take root in our imagination — at their best they show strong role models, open our minds, and teach us about the world around us.

Word Watch

Polynesian islands
Imagine a triangle in the Pacific ocean. Hawaii is at the top, New Zealand to the left, and Easter Island to the right. This is roughly the shape of Polynesia, and it includes over 1,000 islands with shared languages, mythologies and traditions. Moana’s is a fictional island called Motunui.
Moana
This means ‘ocean’ in most Polynesian languages.
Tattoo
Polynesians invented tattooing over 2,000 years ago. The intricate designs are a way for the owner to express their identity, spiritual strength, and position in society.
Wayfinding
For thousands of years, Polynesian navigators would travel across the open ocean using only their knowledge of the stars and sea around them. The knowledge was passed down through generations. It helped them to find new islands, and to keep in contact with their neighbours.
Brownface
Similar to ‘blackface’, this means impersonating people of South Asian, Middle Eastern or Latino skin colours.
Directed
The film is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the Disney duo behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog.

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