Polynesian Culture Represented in Disney’s “Moana”

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone, Wikipedia

This year’s Disney princess musical, “Moana,” follows Pacific islander Moana Waialiki (Auli’i Cravalho) from the small island of Motonui. The animated heroine embarks on a perilous journey to find the demigod Maui and bring him to the island goddess Te Fiti, in order to return the heart stone that will save her people.

Unlike previous Disney princess films, “Moana” borrows mythological characters from the legends of the Maori people of New Zealand to craft a new story. Although the plot follows the same linear narrative told time and time again in similar films, it is given new life in “Moana.” It is an emotional movie with just the right amount of comedic moments to keep both children and adults alike enthralled.

The animation in this film is vibrant and everything fits in perfectly with its Polynesian theme. The locations are incredibly well done and absolutely beautiful. Also, like the Maori people and other Polynesian groups, most characters in this film have tattoos on display. The animators chose to animate Maui’s tattoos adding an extra layer of ongoing comedy; throughout the film, Maui has conversations with the tattoo drawing of himself that magically comes alive. This tattoo animation is the first time since “Winnie the Pooh” that Disney animators have featured a fully hand-drawn animation and it’s a great addition that pays homage to the classic Disney films.

Sixteen year old Hawaiian native Auli’i Cravalho gives an excellent performance in her first acting and singing role as the lead in this film. She also makes history as Disney’s youngest voice actor in a princess role, since she was only 14 when the movie was filmed. The supporting character Maui is played excellently by Dwayne Johnson, who is fairly inexperienced with voice acting. Like the legends borrowed from New Zealand that are used throughout the film, “Moana” also features a largely New Zealand cast. New Zealander Rachel House sticks out in her role as Gramma Tala, Moana’s grandmother. Her soft and caring voice carries plenty of emotion and she completely alters her voice as her thick New Zealand accent vanishes and is replaced by that of an elder woman.

The music for this film is written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame, alongside Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i. Each song fits in well with their scenes and don’t seem out of place in the slightest, except when it is used for comedy in the song “Shiny.” It is also clear to see Miranda’s influence in the song he wrote for Maui, “You’re Welcome,” in which Johnson raps and sings about his past successes as a demigod. Foa’i adds songs in his native tongue, Tokelauan, that flesh out the cultural aspects of the film. Also, the film rivals the hit song “Let It Go” from “Frozen” with its own memorable song “How Far I’ll Go” sung by Cravalho.

“Moana” is an emotional and exciting film that features various aspects of the widely unrepresented Polynesian culture. Although the story is familiar, it’s great to see that Disney is changing their well-known narrative and making the princess the one that saves the day and not the girl that waits for her prince to come.