COMMENTARY: Is Disney Finally Listening To The Cultures They Depict With Moana?

Moana has not been out long but it has already picked up plaudits for its dealing with culture. Something which Disney have struggled with in the past.

Moana tells the tale of a Polynesian girl who must save the world with Demi God Maui by returning a precious stone to a living island. They cross treacherous family tension, monsters and rough seas whilst finding out about each other along the way.

This is another step forward for female representation in film, and thanks to the success of Frozen, a wise business decision by Disney too. Moana has no need for a love interest or dialogue based on her looks. Instead she is a figure of adventure and bravery, and takes the roll of what would have likely been a male character 15 years ago.

The animation of the film is quite spectacular. While the lines are being blurred between Pixar and Disney, no one will really care here as there are some beautiful scenes of moving water and incredible island vistas. Of course the island would now probably have luxury hotels on the beach, but Moana takes us back to a time of simple survival and discovery on pacific islands.

The film is believed to be set 2000 years in the past, when Polynesian tribe were brave enough to cross the Pacific ocean with no navigational tools. To get the audience committed to the world it had to be authentic and not just an American image of what they think south pacific culture is. Disney Animation Chief John Lassetter therefore made sure that the film was well researched and well represented.

Legendary directors Ron Clements and John Musker traveled the islands of the south pacific and gathered a team called the Oceanic Trust. This consisted of anthropologists, historians, linguists and choreographers who painted a picture for Musker and Clements they could build Moana around.

The cast were all purposely Polynesian actors with the biggest star being (both metaphorically and physically) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who plays demi-god Maui. The action star took on his role with tremendous enthusiasm, and thanks to it being an animation there was no chance of the former wrestler starting a fight on the set! Other actors involved was Flight of the Conchords Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger and newcomer Auli’I Cravahlo as Moana.

It did not stop all criticisms however. Offense was taken about the portrayal of men in the film. The overweight nature of them is a stereotype of Polynesian men. The pronunciation of some of the words, specifically by Dwayne Johnson, were accused of being Americanised and female goddesses were removed from the story.

Unfortunately for Disney it is very difficult to appease everyone while also making the entertainment that we know and love. While there were omissions that were deemed important by the public, the directors viewed Moana as the star and any other female characters would have taken away from her screen time. One saving grace for Disney was the music.

Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda was composer and songwriter, weaving his magic throughout with the same skill that made him such a hit on Broadway. But it was the surprise inclusion of traditional singers, a choir from Fiji and even songs in the Tokelauan language, that made me take notice of Disney’s handling of the culture.

Moana is a vision which not only impresses visually, but also shows Disney’s continuing maturity when it comes to their use of cultures in film. Disney’s next venture is with Pixar and is expected to be set in Mexico. All eyes will be on whether they continue this trend for entertaining and well researched animations.