‘Moana’ Still Raises Discussions On Cultural Appropriateness Despite Its Divergence From Disney’s ‘Princess’ Formula

Disney has a lot to be grateful for after Moana received critical acclaim over the Thanksgiving weekend, but some still find the film culturally offensive.

Moana follows a teenager’s journey to recover something that would bring back the adventurous spirit of her people. The story takes place in Polynesia 3,000 years ago. Moana is accompanied by a demigod named Maui, who, despite having a sincere heart, is portrayed as an egotistical character. Some people in the Pacific have raised concern over Maui. Since he is a revered hero in the culture, being portrayed as an obese man comes across as questionable for some.

Moana and Maui in the movie

Last Halloween, Disney faced backlash when it opted to sell Maui costumes which featured brown clothing bearing the character’s full-body tattoos. Disney had to pull out the costume from its online store after critics likened it to blackface.

It reportedly took the filmmakers five years to create Moana because they initially insisted on travelling to the Pacific to consult anthropologists, linguists, and other experts. The team wanted to have first-hand accounts from people in the Pacific to come up with a meaningful representation of Moana and her people.

As for Maui’s character, producer Osnat Shurer told New Zealand’s Stuff that villages have different perceptions of him. “To some he’s a Superman, to others he’s a trickster,” she recalled. She hopes that Pacific Islanders will welcome the movie with an open mind as they did it “with love and respect.”

Teresia Teaiwa, a Pacific Studies lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington, believes that Disney did not give a just representation of Maui in Moana.

“Before Disney, I’ve seen a lot of other representations, and Maui is a hero. I think it’s clear from the trailers I’ve seen that he’s a buffoon in Disney. It’s a dramatic shift. He was a trickster but not a buffoon.”

For her, Disney also relied on the American stereotype that men in the Pacific are huge. “They wanted to get it right commercially without getting it wrong culturally. But there are some things that they clearly didn’t mind getting wrong,” she added to the publication.

She likewise found the controversial Maui costume “macabre” and “creepy.” This is because early ethnologists managed to lift and preserve the skin of the dead Pacific people. She found it disturbing that Disney produced such costume.

Despite these concerns, Moana still garnered praises for not adhering to Disney’s formula when it comes to its heroines. The movie wanted to emphasize Moana’s capability to stand on her own. This guiding principle even prompted directors Ron Clements and John Musker to edit some parts of the flick.

The directors told Yahoo Movies that they nearly put too much focus on Maui.

We had versions where [Maui] was so moved by her, he lifted up an island where he had never lifted up an island. He did various things that seemed to turn the focus on him.”

The women in the team apparently pointed out the seeming change in the direction. The directors realized that if they wouldn’t rewrite the scene, it would come out as if Moana’s victory was because of Maui alone. Disney didn’t want that because it was important for them for Moana to become the story’s ultimate hero. After all, they were grooming Moana to become an inspiration for little girls.

Moana movie

“Every Disney film is kind of reflective of its time, and I think it’s time that we have a heroine that’s in charge of her own story, who doesn’t need a love interest. The main theme of Moanais the journey she goes on that I think everyone can relate to,” the directors added.

Do you think Disney committed cultural misappropriation?

[Image by Disney]