Dina Gilio-Whitaker
A life-size model of Moana and the demi-god Maui, characters in the movie display inside the Disney’s animation studio where Moana was made.

Disney Refines Its Cultural Competence in Moana, But Bigger Questions Remain

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

“For years, we have been swallowed by your culture. Can you once be swallowed by ours?” This is what Disney’s production team heard when they embarked on a mission to research the cultures of Oceania for its newest film, Moana, scheduled for release on November 23.

The creators of the completely computer-generated (CG) film have been holding a series of junket-style press events, to which ICTMN was invited and attended in October. The day-long affair included a screening of segments of the film (now in its final production phase), and panels throughout the day on various aspects of the film’s making, including research, character development, and special effects. Journalists also had the opportunity to interview individual members of the production and artistic teams.

“I grew up an airline brat, always interacting with lots of different cultures. And as an Israeli, I come from a colonized people,” Osnat Shurer, Moana producer told ICTMN. “It’s really important that we get this right.”

Long-time Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker are Moana’s directors.

So finely attuned to the need to portray Oceanic peoples accurately, the production team along with some of Disney’s animation artists, began with three trips to Polynesia (and Fiji, which is technically not considered part of Polynesia) to research the cultures, history, and ocean and landscapes. From those trips, they assembled a loose group of advisors they call the Oceanic Story Trust, to guide them in their creative process. 

Having listened and been deeply affected by their interactions with the people they met, they became even more committed to portray Oceanic cultures as accurately as possible.

“Our goal was to earn the trust of the people who worked with us, and to do this we needed to spend as much time with them as possible,” explained Shurer during a question and answer session after the screening.

“We really put our hearts into it, and hopefully it’s a film people will love,” she said.

The story of Moana is what the production team describe as a hero’s journey. Set in an ancient pre-European past, Moana (played by Native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravahlo) is a teenage girl on the island of Motunui, the daughter of a chief, who sets out on a journey to revive her people’s voyaging past. The tradition long ago mysteriously abandoned, they are now confined to the island by the surrounding reef. Inspired by her grandmother Tala (Rachel House), the keeper of the ancient secrets of her people, Moana sets out on a journey to save her people’s world, while she finds her true self.

Moana is aided by the Polynesian demi-god Maui, played by superstar actor and former WWF wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. For Maui–a shapeshifter who wields a magical fishhook–it is a journey of self-discovery that also holds the possibility of redemption, for it is he who is responsible for the trouble that threatens Moana’s people. 

In typical Disney form, there are beloved animal friends like Pua the Pig and Heihei, the world’s dumbest rooster. And there are of course formidable foes who must be overcome, like the Kakamora, ruthless pirates in the form of coconuts, and the terrifying volcano being, Te Ka.

The story itself is an odd blend of historical and cultural accuracy on the one hand, and absolute fiction on the other, which the production crew says was guided every step of the way by their advisors in the Oceanic Story Trust (consisting of unnamed anthropologists, academics, educators, linguists, master navigators, and cultural experts who are evidently bound by non-disclosure agreements). For example, the story is premised on a theory that after centuries of voyaging among Oceanic peoples, there was a one-thousand-year interruption where voyaging mysteriously stopped. 

Likewise, Maui is one of the most prominent figures in Polynesian lore, and is known by a variety of names and qualities from culture to culture. While Maui is a god, he is also human, possessed of supernatural powers, but also with human fallibility. In the film, as in some cultures, he is a trickster. 

Some of the words are actual Polynesian words, like Moana and Maui, and Motunui (a village in New Zealand, and the name of an island in Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island). Kakamora is drawn from little people stories in the Solomon Islands. Others are completely made up, like Te Ka the volcano being (who the creators say has no relation to Pele of Hawaiian legends).


Moana’s creators are quick to point out that while they relied on meticulous research, at the end of the day, Moana is a work of fiction. The designers paid attention to detail in cultural elements like clothing, where Moana’s outfits are made from tapa cloth, sennit (coconut fiber), and pandanus, or Taualuga, worn by daughters of chiefs in coming of age ceremonies in Samoa. And they did go out of their way to hire predominantly Polynesian talent.

Moana is, as one would expect, a stunning visual spectacle that will grab audiences in the way that only Disney can. It incorporates new technology that was designed specifically for this project, putting it over top in CG realism and beauty. The score was composed by some of the best musicians in the Pacific, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i, with help from Lin-Manuel Miranda. People will be moved to tears and Moana will likely inspire cultural pride in the Polynesian/Oceanic peoples who will view it.

The film, however, is ultimately an attempt to tell an Indigenous story through a Western, Eurocentric lens. As much as Disney has stepped up its game to avoid perpetuating the same old tired stereotypes of Indigenous peoples in general, and island peoples (which it does with some degree of success), there are aspects of this film that will not avoid deeper scrutiny. One of the most obvious is Disney’s conscious choice to blend together all the cultures of “Oceania,” which is an extremely diverse world consisting of not just Polynesia, but Melanesia and Micronesia as well. This homogenizing of distinct Pacific island cultures is not unlike portraying Native Americans all as Plains Indians, as the film industry is notorious for.

Since the word about Moana’s creation was released a couple of years ago, some Pacific Island scholars and intellectuals have expressed their suspicion and in some cases, outright disdain for what they see as nothing than Disney’s latest cultural appropriation. For a good collection of these critiques, see the facebook page Mana Moana: We Are Moana, We Are Maui.

Although Disney is making a concerted effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past (and have inevitably fallen short–think Pocahontas and Lilo and Stitch), the bigger questions persist. To name a few:

What does it mean for mega-corporations like Disney to make films based on Indigenous cultures, for which they will reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profits? What’s in it for those peoples whose cultures are exploited? Does Moana follow a larger pattern of romanticizing island peoples at the expense of ignoring their current sociopolitical realities? To what degree does the choice to focus on a fictionalized ancient past contribute to the ongoing erasure of Indigenous peoples in the face of dominant, assimilative societies?

There will always be those who find this line of questioning unpleasant, given the belief that Disney is trying to be multicultural and inclusive, and just trying to entertain. But it must be remembered that Disney has always been a product of its times, and at times has been the purveyor of some of the worst representations of non-white peoples, and enriched itself doing so. And let’s be clear that it is only because of enlightened social policy emanating from the relentless criticism of people of color over time that Disney has been pushed to do better. After all, when it comes to trafficking in the cultures of real people, Disney, like all media with the power of representation, must be held responsible to them.  

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