by Ho Lam Leung
Disney’s “Moana” received abundant pre-release attention – not surprising given the Disney brand. It’s stirring debate about insensitivity and culture appropriation regarding Pacific Islanders. What do actual viewers think of the film? It earned $2.6 million at the box office among preview audiences, according to <forbes.com>, doubling that of Disney’s “Frozen”which earned $1.2 million in 2012.
We turned to social media for audience reaction. Dominant themes were gleaned from 57 interviews at a theater in Laie, Hawaii. More than half of the opinions came from Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander (53.6%). The rest are from Caucasians (21.4%), Asians (16.1%), and (8.9%) from other groups.
The majority of statements (91.3%) expressed overall satisfaction toward the movie, praising “spectacular” animation and “vibrant color.” Audience members liked the “innovative” story. Others expressed pride in Polynesian traditions: “Well, I figured out why the ocean didn’t just get the heart over to Te Fiti (the goddess of islands)? The answer to that is simple … it was necessary for both Moana and Maui to grow from the journey. Life is about growth. Our ancestors and the elements know this too.” A “personal growth” message was grasped by several audience members.
The character, Maui, was depicted as a “buffoon“, “selfish idiot“, “scared“, “arrogant” and “hideous,” according to several interviewees. The majority, however, liked Disney’s depiction, arguing his accomplishments were conveyed. The “lighthearted portray” fit well with Maui’s trickster role. In fact, several Islanders agreed that a “built” and “big” appearance was an appropriate description of Maui. One said, “Maui has multiple descriptions throughout Polynesia and even within a Polynesian group. History was maintained orally and has not preserved a single detailed Maui description.” Few said Disney fabricated the Maui story. Musker and Celements depict a combination of South Pacific cultures in “Moana”, instead of just one (as seen in “Lilo and Stitch”). Fijian, Samoan, Tahitian, and other Oceanic cultures are synthesized. How do the audiences thought about such mingling of cultures in the movie?
In order to understand the Pacific spirit, the directors and production team made visits to the Pacific, engaging an Oceanic consulting team. Did their efforts pay off? Several seem to think so: “I felt that it was portrayed pretty accurately as I felt like I could relate to a number of characters as they reminded me of people I know or knew in my life.” Citing the moment Moana fights through the reef with her canoe said, “(it) brought lots of memories.”
The integration of different island cultures was both praised and criticized. On one side, Disney’s inclusion of “all the islands” was lauded. A Pacific Islander said, “It’s difficult to tell the different cultures,” while several participants found the mixing “all too jumbled,” making it hard to follow the story. Several were surprised to find a “strong Samoan influence.” Perhaps this is because Samoa is one of the few islands allowing women to have the chiefly title. One viewer recognized the “twist of legends and customs” compared to their own island versions. Knowing the Moana role in her island, one responded, “Women don’t take the responsibility of providing and protecting in Polynesia, but maybe Moana is based on some Tahitian myth or legend.” Some sensed favoritism in the choice of culture. “I don’t like how (the movie) was only Samoan and Tahitian-based. Maui is a Polynesian demigod, but the movie only displayed him as only a few.”
At another level, music and dance played a big role. The song, “We Know The Way,” was sung in Tokelauan. One participant said, “It was like being back on the island.” However, several noted a lack of Polynesian sound: Some songs “didn’t really fit.” Some argued that the soundtracks are more “Polynesian-inspired” than “authentic.”
In summary, the audience clearly enjoyed the film, yet were assertive in their cultural critique. Those unfamiliar with Island cultures are likely to miss the nuances, but feel entertained nevertheless. But to Oceanic peoples, we are speaking of heroes and Gods. They live in the heart of those that preserve their heritage. They make Pacific Islanders unique from other nations of the world. Did Disney introduce these traditions to the world in Moana? Perhaps not, but new interest may be kindled.