Reception for Moana, Disney’s animated Polynesian adventure, shows the value of resisting stereotypes

Respect and attention to detail lie behind box-office success of big-screen tale of demigod Maui – voiced by Dwayne Johnson, who has Samoan heritage – and a village chief’s teenage daughter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 5:34pm

Six years ago, John Musker began reading about the Polynesian demigod Maui. Co-director with Ron Clements on such animated Disney features as Aladdin and Treasure Planet, Musker felt this mythological character would make a great basis for a new film. He took the idea to John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, who was immediately intrigued – but there was a proviso.

“John Lasseter is really, really big on research,” says Clements.

It meant taking the first of several trips for what would eventually feed into Moana, the first major animated movie to be set in the Polynesian islands. “It was tough, but someone had to go to Tahiti and Fiji!” laughs Osnat Shurer, the film’s producer.

Joking aside, it was just the beginning of an extensive period of research. “To be honest, when we first started the film, I don’t think we realised what a job it would be,” says Musker.

Already, the results are there to be seen, with global box office takings of US$487 million (HK$3.8 billion) and glowing reviews.

Maui (voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) is just part of a story that follows Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), a 16-year-old island girl and daughter of the village chief as she sets sail in a boat, facing everything from typhoons to lava demons, to help find more fish for her increasingly food-scarce community. “This is a pretty classic kind of hero’s journey film,” says Shurer.

On that first venture, Musker and Clements – both 63 years old – met various people from Polynesia. “They were wary, on that first trip, with how the islands had been treated in various movies,” says Musker. “Certain stereotypes. We asked them: tell us a movie that did right by your culture? They said, ‘Whale Rider,’ and we looked at it, and it’s a wonderful film. That was more of an insider’s view of the Maori and the New Zealand issues, so that gave us a hint as to how to become ingrained in the culture.”

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While Niki Caro’s 2002 Oscar-nominated movie provided a fine blueprint, it was just the beginning. Moana’s production team created what became known as the “Oceanic Story Trust” – a group made up of islanders ranging from archaeologists and anthropologists to master tattoo artists, choreographers, weavers, orators, botanists and fishermen.

“We just stayed in touch with [them] through the creation of the film,” says Shurer. “No design would be locked until we had somebody take a look at it.”

Shaping everything from song lyrics to even the flora and fauna that can be glimpsed in the backdrops, this desire to be authentic to the islands’ heritage and landscape was drawn into sharp focus after a meeting with one Tahitian elder, who told them: “For years, we’ve been swallowed by your culture. For one time, can you be swallowed by ours?”

It became the film’s mantra. “We had it up on the wall,” says Shurer. “It was something we felt very strongly about.”

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It wasn’t just about making sure costumes or tattoos were accurate, though. “There were cultural sensitivity questions [to consider] – what was village life like, how was the town set up?” says Musker. “It’s not a documentary – and yet [we wanted to] acknowledge the truth of all the cultural issues and find a way to make those work together. That was a challenge we hadn’t realised at first, but we embraced once we got into it. It added a layer of complexity and difficulty.”

Take the Polynesian relationship to water. “We learned about things we really didn’t know about, about the history of navigation – how they were the world’s greatest navigators and took great pride in that,” says Clements. “And their connection to the ocean – they talked about the ocean as if it were real, as if it had feelings.”

Frequent Skype sessions with Fijian fishermen ensured the animators on the project learned precise rope movements required to sail vessels.

As Musker puts it, “We made a personal connection with these people, so it wasn’t just a corporate thing. We felt as a personal thing to these people to do right by them, because we had made friends with them, in a way, and they were our allies.”

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One of the film’s advisers, Hinano Murphy, requested that the film be dubbed into Tahitian, and they were only too happy to oblige. “It’s never been done,” says Shurer. “There are no movies in Tahitian there. They’re in French.”

As Clements points out, the Tahitian language is disappearing. By way of example, he cites the way children there don’t know the Tahitian word for “clownfish”, referring instead to Disney-owned Pixar’s own animated fish Nemo, from Finding Nemo.

“Western culture has a way of permeating and overwhelming,” he admits. “Even the stories we read so much about, even though those stories about Maui are told throughout the islands, we were surprised that a lot of the children don’t know the stories.”

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Given their sensitivity to the subject, Clements and Musker were doubtless stung when negative comments began circulating on social media in the run-up to the film’s release. When Disney released pictures of Maui, his bulked-up depiction was criticised for showing an “obese” image. “This negative stereotype of Maui is just not acceptable,” argued New Zealand MP Jenny Salesa on Twitter, claiming Maui’s rendering was akin to “half pig, half hippo”.

The film’s merchandise campaign also drew criticism, with Maori Party co-leader and MP Marama Fox noting that Disney was looking to “make a profit off the back of another culture’s beliefs and history”.

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But nothing could be further from the truth, say the filmmakers, who strove for authenticity. The voice cast, for example, is almost entirely made up of Pacific islanders, from Dwayne Johnson, who has Samoan heritage, to the Hawaii-born Auli’i Cravalho and singer Nicole Scherzinger, who plays Sina.

“It wasn’t a mandate when we started out that every one of these actors must be from the area, but we were certainly hoping Moana would be,” admits Clements. Yet as the cast formed, it became clear just how important it was to use locals.

“From Dwayne Johnson to Auli’i to everyone else, because this was their world, and they had deep roots in this world, it made it important for them too. They had input as well – in terms of things being correct and respectful.”

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Far removed from the bad old days when Disney’s 1995 film Pocahontas caused uproar for fudging historical accuracies, Moana’s success can be measured by the reactions.

Early screenings for, as Musker puts it, “movers and shakers from the island communities” were overwhelmingly positive, he says. “They felt the culture was well represented. It was really thrilling for us – as these reactions have been rolling in. Because this is what we started out wanting to do.”

Moana opens on January 26

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