Disney’s latest animated blockbuster Moana is largely based on the culture and mythology of the Polynesian people who originally settled Samoa, Tonga, Hawai’i, New Zealand, Tahiti, and many other far-flung islands of the Pacific.
Disney has a less-than-stellar reputation when it comes to portraying non-European cultures (AHEM, Aladdin, looking at you), so as a person of Polynesian descent (I'm Native Hawaiian on my mom's side) I was understandably concerned when Disney announced its plans.
See? I’m LEGIT.
Turns out I liked Moana quite a lot, but I reached out to some of my Polynesian friends and family to get their take on it. Here’s what they shared.
1. How did you feel when you first heard that Disney was going to make a movie based on Polynesian mythology?
Gina (44, Samoan, Native Hawaiian, European, and Native American): I was excited but also skeptical. I didn’t want the culture to get twisted and misrepresented. But I was happy that perhaps there would be a Disney princess* who looked like my daughter since none of the other ones are really representative of her.
Kymon (16, Tongan and Navajo): I didn’t believe it at first. I was nervous that they weren’t going to be able to portray the Polynesians in the right way. But at the same time I was happy that I would be able to share with my friends where at least half of me comes from.
Sina (31, Samoan, Native Hawaiian, Japanese): I was rolling my eyeballs around and around in my head. I felt like Disney was going to ruin it all again, like Lilo and Stitch, the other Hawaiian animation with an awesome soundtrack, but a weird, hard-to-relate-to storyline.
Jessica (37, Samoan, Niuean): I think it is important to point out that many Polynesians changed opinions and reactions because there were a lot of active discussions and dialogue in our communities regarding the movie. My initial reaction was "Oh great, another Lilo and Stitch nightmare. What is Disney exploiting this time for profit?" As the movie release got closer I had other questions: Why are they desecrating sacred things? Did they do their research? What’s with the dumb (Maui) Halloween costumes of full body with tattooing? It reminded me of the dumb sumo costumes that can be offensive to Japanese culture.
Elenoa (22, Samoan): I was honestly super excited. I thought it was wonderful that Disney was giving the Polynesian community a chance to expose a little bit of their culture to the world. Disney has made a lot more movies recently that have been very diverse, and to be a part of that, was super awesome.
2. What were your favorites parts of the movie and why?
Jacosa (36, Samoan and Caucasian): I loved the grandma, and all scenes with her. She was such a real, authentic depiction of my own grandma and many kupunas I know. This was a beautiful tribute to the love Polynesians have for their elders and ancestors.
Tupua (31, American Samoan): Just seeing people that look like me onscreen doing great and positive things. Polynesians have complicated relationships with our parents because they can be really strict and many of them still discipline through spanking, so seeing positive moments between Moana and her parents mean a lot to me. Most Poly guys are momma’s boys because their dads are so strict. I myself am very close to my mother and grandmother soooo I loved seeing that onscreen!
Maile (30, Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and European): My absolute favorite part was when Moana was feeling defeated and was about to give up on her mission and her grandmother visited her. The image of the manta ray coming up from the water was so moving. I love that Disney incorporated the ‘aumakua and showed how we do not believe our ancestors are gone after this life. They are always around us, cheering us on, but we still have the choice to venture on or not.
Leilani (35, Native Hawaiian, Japanese, and Mexican): I loved the opening chant while the screen was still dark. Those first few lines filled me with pride and excitement. I loved when the grandma was teaching the kids the legend of Maui. Everybody has a crazy grandparent/family member who always sees more than people think.
Uisaina (18, Samoan, Hawaiian, Caucasian/European, Native American, and Japanese): My favorite part of the movie was just admiring the aesthetic of the movie itself. It didn’t matter if it was a fight scene in the middle of the ocean or a wide shot of the island Moana came from. It was nice to see that Disney wasted no effort in trying to capture the raw beauty and color of the life I have come to appreciate in the islands.
3. What were your least favorite parts of the movie?
Kahea (Native Hawaiian, European): The constant mixture of cultures — yet portraying it as one. People may think all the songs were in Hawaiian. (Editor: The non-English lyrics to songs such as "We Know the Way" were Tokelauan not Hawaiian.)
Katey (32, Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Mexican and European): Maui. I felt like Dwayne Johnson did a great job as Maui. But did he have to look like he ate too much panipopo? I mean, when was the last time that the Rock even ate panipopo?! Also, the crab? Why? It just seemed to add space to the film.
Sabrina (Native Tahitian, European, and Chinese) : Ugh, easy one: the “snail” part! I know it’s supposed to be a crab but it looked more like a snail to me. I didn’t think it matched its name, Tamatoa. In my culture, Tamatoa is a name of legends and represents tough heroes! Not some slimy crab. I was expecting something more fierce and manly because of the nature of that name in my culture!
Kymon: Honestly, when Maui would have those random lash-outs of the slap dance. (Cringe fest.)
Nik (28, Tongan and Caucasian): I know it’s a Disney Princess* movie and they want to instill power to the princess but in the Tongan culture women don’t become chiefs. I am sure they did a lot of thinking about it and I loved the movie overall, but coming from a Tongan background it was a little weird to have a female chief.
Kanani (48, Samoan, Hawaiian, Japanese, and a little bit Tongan.): I didn’t like the chicken— I’m not sure why. I didn’t like Maui’s physique either, they could have made him more Dwayne Johnson–ish less Israel Kamakawiwoʻole–ish.
Elenoa (22, Samoan): Probably the coconut gods. Haha c’mon. Coconuts? We have plenty of things we could have put in there that are scarier than coconuts.
4. Who was your favorite character?
Tupua: Maui was charming but MOOOAAANA ALL DA WAY! The women in our Samoan society are the backbone of the family. She did not wait for Maui to handle her business — SHE DID THAT! When she put her hair up in a bun… YOU KNEW IT WAS ON! Polynesian women only do that when they mean business.
Setema (40, Samoan): Moana by far was the most incredible. Her heart, her desire, her strong will, and her unrelenting, unconquerable spirit allowed her to listen to her inner voice and go forward. She was so committed that she risked everything. They made her absolutely beautiful inside and out.
Valerie F. (28, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Japanese): Moana — her character is so likable. She really is a young heroine who my daughters can aspire to be like: strong, smart, fearless and determined. I love her!
Uisaina: My favorite character was definitely Moana’s grandmother, Tala. She reminded me of a few aunties and grandmothers I’ve known and it was nice seeing them take to the big screen in a way that wasn’t super demeaning or stereotypical. I know that when I reach that age, I’ll definitely be just like Grandma Tala, the village crazy lady.
5. If you could change one thing about the movie what would it be?
Jacosa: I would take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice off of all the tracks. I love his writing, but his voice is not particularly amazing, and he sounds nothing like most of the Polynesians I know. When I heard his voice, it pulled me out of it. I know quite a few Polynesian men whose vocals would have been amazing.
Gina: Utilize Jemaine (Clement) better. Also, what was up with that chicken? Heihei is the Jar Jar Binks of the Poly world.
Valerie F.: I wouldn’t really change anything in the movie. However, if you’d ask my husband, who was born and raised in the islands, he’d say Moana being the next in line to be chief. That’s not realistic — girls are not chiefs.
Even though the movie is fiction based on our real culture, I love how Moana was her father’s successor. It brings me back to the whole “girl power” point. Girls can do and be anything they want, and that’s what I want my daughters to see and believe. That’s why I love Moana!
Esther (32, Samoan, Native Hawaiian, and Japanese): The choir/group voices sounded too small; Polynesians choirs have an amazing sound, and I wish they thought to at least double their voices to fill out the choral parts.
6. What do you hope people will take away after watching Moana and what do you think they should know about your Polynesian culture that Disney may have missed?
Jacosa: We would all like to be able to say that media has no bearing in how we feel about ourselves, that we need no one’s validation. However, there is something really powerful and, yes, validating, about seeing a positive representation of your physical being in mainstream media. I would love for audiences and filmmakers to understand this, and to embrace the importance of respectful, positive depictions of all cultures and people.
Sarana (37, Samoan): I’m not sure if non-Polynesians understood that the movie is a portrayal of all of the Polynesian cultures, not one specific culture in particular.
Valerie F.: I hope people realize is that we do exist. Growing up in SoCal, everyone thought I was Hispanic — they didn’t know what Samoan was. After the Rock became popular, then I had someone to refer to, but before that people knew only of Hawaii. Nowadays more people know of us, or know at least one person who is Polynesian, but we are still a small minority. Disney is such a huge platform, so for them to feature us is a big deal. More people will be able to get a quick sneak peek into our culture as a whole and be familiar with our background.
Sabrina: I would hope that people will see and learn that our ancestors were not just fierce warriors and workers on land but also very talented intelligent people on the sea!
Jessica: I think they should know that our culture is alive and well. This is not a dying culture — it is a thriving one, one that still finds ways to voyage and innovate in modern-day America.
Leilani: I hope that people understand that there’s a connection and a special balance between us and the nature that surrounds us. I hope this movie helps people learn to give more back to our planet instead of only taking what they can.
7. Any final thoughts?
Max (29, Hawaiian, Chinese, and European): For Polynesians, this movie is a big deal. This is a rare movie because it’s putting Polynesians front and center and giving Polynesian children a movie that they can see themselves in. That alone is priceless. Every culture deserves their screen time in my opinion.
Setema: Disney did an amazing job. There’s many Polynesians who are hating on the movie. Disney never said they were making a documentary. They made a movie to tie into the Poly cultures and the island mythology. Great job Disney and thank you for doing such an incredible job representing our people with the sights, sounds, colors, music, and message.
Gina: I think the movie was a good (albeit watered-down) representation of our culture. I’m very pleased that they used Polynesian voice actors, and that they did so much research so as to get the cultural pieces correct. I thought it would bother me to see all the cultures combined, but it didn’t. The Samoan headdress with the Tongan traditional clothing and Hawaiian dancing and Tahitian drumming… didn’t bother me at all. I know there were many things that were technically incorrect, but I felt that overall, it was a good and positive representation of our culture. And I LOVE that I can buy my daughter a doll that not only looks similar to her, but that is actually from her culture.
Bill (38, Samoan): Disney can still bring a tear to my eye in less than 10 minutes. Damn you, Disney. Damn you.
Sarana: I would like to suggest that those that portray Moana in the future as a "princess*" at Disneyland/World know how to dance. Don't just throw a Zumba instructor in front of a crowd and think because she's brown she'll be a good stand-in.
Katey: I loved the movie overall. It was beautiful. But Disney (and everyone else) must know that it’s impossible to make a movie that is a complete representation of a culture. It doesn’t mean that they did a bad job. They did a wonderful job. It just means that the job isn’t done!
Tupua: If you need any Poly people for your BuzzFeed videos… I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE.
* [Editor: Moana is ~technically~ not a Disney princess, though it's fair to say that many people see her as a princess equivalent.]
Special thanks to all our contributors: Jacosa Ainu’u, Setema Gali, Gina Hales, Kahealani Kamauu, Sarana Albert, Sina Maag, Kymon T. Palau, Valerie Fitisemanu, Katey Carlson, Sabrina Tuairau Fonoimoana, Makeli Scholer, Tupua Ainu'u, Max Scholer, Nik Mickelsen, Jessica Leauanae, Esther Langi, Uisaina Manumaleuna, Josie Malepeai Lealasola, Opapo Fonoimoana, Kanani Tuala, Leilani Swann, Elenoa Mulitalo, Valerie Kalama Varner, Maile Stout, and Bill Clement.