by Danny Stout and Gunnar Christensen
The much-promoted Moana debuted this week with fodder for film critics and giddy kids alike. Disney animation delivers a bouquet of folding color, and a clear moral message; parents and youngsters content with Saturday afternoon euphoria on the way to the post-theater ice cream cone. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker deserve modest praise. Unique in film history, millions will see a version of Polynesian culture for the first time. There’s a lot at stake for Pacific Islanders if Moana is the only introduction to Oceana. Tēvita O. Kaʻili, Indigenous Oceanian Cultural Anthropologist at Brigham Young University-Hawaii said in the The Huffington Post, “Minutes into Disney’s Moana, it became obvious that despite its important girl-power message, the film had a major flaw. It lacked symmetry by its omission of a heroic goddess. By failing to do this, Disney resorted to reducing the mighty god Māui to a one-dimensional selfish borderline abusive buffoon to foreground the strength of the movie’s protagonist Moana.”
As Ka’ili points out, whimsy overrides the integral message; Disney’s versions are usually dilutions of the engaging age-old truth tales even children long to see (See reviews of Krampus, and The Real Beauty and the Beast on this site ). Again, a swing and a miss despite the cerulean ocean and lush green mountains interjected with upbeat music by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, especially the snappy tune, “You’re Welcome.”
Despite underlying values of family, following your calling, and taking risks, Moana shows that even a Pixar movie with all its technological trappings, can miss and even offend Polynesian audience members.
Looking at it from a superficial perspective, there’s continuity of emotion— laughing, then sadness, and optimal tension appropriate for children. It personifies various parts of the earth, as does Hawaiian belief. You see a sassy and loving side of the ocean, the earth’s anger at its mistreatment, and its gratitude when honored with love and respect.
Moana is a colorful joyful ride, but an immature view of Polynesian culture. Despite its inaccuracies and stereotypes, however, it places Oceana on the media map so to speak. Polynesia has entered the popular discourse, and it is up to audience members to clarify for misguided fans what they missed in this perfunctory effort.