I may be one of a handful of Polynesians who was never allured by the idea of Disney telling our stories.
Though film is a powerful medium, it also comes with limitations. The messaging is one sided, the experience is often passive and the narrative is controlled by those who created the film.
For the most part, I go to movies to escape. But for Disney’s Moana, because of the subject matter, I went as a “resisting spectator,” a phrase I borrow from cultural critic bell hooks. (Yes, that is how she spells her name.)
Moana is not the first time Disney has fixed its gaze on the Pacific.
As much as I try to forget, Lilo and Stitch is still hanging around on Netflix. There’s the popular Polynesian Village Resort at Disney World that’s been around since 1971, which is why you will find Polynesians in Orlando, Florida. (Shout out to my Orlando Wolfgramm and Netane family.)
There’s the Enchanted Tiki Room at several Disney resorts, featuring animated tiki statues representing Polynesian gods. (Vomit.)
And most recently, there is Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii, which I will never be able to afford but maybe my famous cousin who MC’s the luau can hook me up with a family discount.
The reality is that the Walt Disney Company is a publicly traded multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate with a financial obligation to shareholders. Let’s be clear about that and this is why I get nervous when some of us say we are okay with a well-oiled machine like Disney assuming the role of an arbiter of our culture.
How well did Pocahontas work out for native people? Apparently not, if you haven’t been paying attention to the news. (#NoDAPL)
Moana for us represents many things — harmless entertainment, some might see it as a documentary providing a missing piece in a cultural identity puzzle. Some see Moana in a pedagogical role, a teaching tool that will help others learn more about us. And some of us see Moana as an extension of the Disney moneymaking apparatus and evokes a painful ongoing pattern of colonialism, imperialism, exploitation, homogenization, cultural theft and appropriation in the Pacific.
All are true and problematic all the same.
But there is a danger when we say that we must take one side or the other. This absolutist point of view is divisive, and to unjustly label family and friends employed by Disney or those who work in cultural entertainment as cultural prostitutes is detestable.
The bigger truth is this: we live in a complex age of inevitable consumerism and capitalism. This is the world that is imposed on us, so we occupy this world as involuntary or voluntary participants, as colonized people, in colonial settler roles, as transnationals, and as members of diasporic communities around the world. Capitalism is demanding and unforgiving. Engagement for many of us is out of necessity.
On the flip side, we can also be critical of Disney’s capitalistic aims and side-eye their claims of doing justice to our stories, without having to be dismissed as “haters.”
Ultimately, what saves Disney’s Moana from the shit-show train wreck it could have been is the work of the Oceanic Story Trust and the breakthrough performance of its star, Auli’i Cravalho.
In a Vanity Fair interview, it was revealed that John Lasseter, Pixar legend and current Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation, strongly urged Moana’s directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, to actually go to the South Pacific to do research and not Margaret Mead their way through this whole production from the comfort of their Burbank office.
(And this is why Pixar are better storytellers than Disney.)
This prodding led to the Oceanic Story Trust, a team of Pacific anthropologists, cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers who served as cultural advisors on the film.
The Trust has received a lot of flack from the Pacific academic community but I don’t share those views.
It was easy for me to distinguish that this ongoing collaboration, or intervention is probably a more accurate term, between the Trust and Disney produced the best parts of the film, namely the first and last act. Pay attention to the subtle details in the village, to the character animation, to what they wear and say — speaking from my experience as a creative director, the intricate details packed into these frames are a sight to behold.
(I also see the influence of renown Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, in the last act.)
If that doesn’t grab you, wait until you see the magnificent “We Know the Way” scene with Opetaia Foai’s signature Te Vaka sound in the background. It is powerful cinema.
The heart of the movie is the heroine herself, not so much Moana the 3D shell, but the young woman tasked with bringing Moana to life.
Not only did Auli’i face the immense pressure of acting in the title role, she did so while bearing the burden of being shoehorned by Disney into something that is suppose to represent all our island cultures. It’s a lot to demand from a 14 year old, but Auli’i masterfully grounds the movie on a cultural terrain that is respectful, genuine and familiar. (Auli’i just turned 16 but was 14 when she started working on the film.)
It’s apparent in her red carpet and media appearances that she is deeply rooted in her Hawaiian culture and identity, which is why she can articulate about cultural things in a manner that is mature beyond her age, and be able to translate a white man’s script into something that is tangible, real and recognizable on the screen and not a simplistic, reductive caricature.
Disney should be paying her equally, if not more, than her male counterpart with the more extensive IMDb entries.
Speaking of her male counterpart, I’ll be straight up — Disney Māui is hella annoying and messy.
The movie lags in the second act when we are introduced to Māui the demigod, whose disruptive presence is not so much due to his controversial over the top, exaggerated physical appearance, but by what he personifies on the screen: a radical shift of values rooted in westernized ideals of individualism and pernicious meritocracy.
Maybe this contrast was intentional, but it’s a yuckiness that is hard to shake off, even after a scene that was supposed to serve as his redemptive moment.
Dr. ʻOkusitino Māhina, a Tongan cultural anthropologist, refers to our revered ancestor Māui as a freedom fighter whose heroic feats were motivated by a desire for social justice and equality, to free mankind from bondage and tyrannical regimes. Māui’s genealogy extends far and wide throughout the Pacific, from Polynesia to Micronesia, Melanesia, and even the Philippines.
But Disney Māui — Mow-wee, as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pronounces it — is none of those things. Rather, he is arrogant, egotistical, self-absorbed and feeds off the adoration of others.
Disney Māui plays up to tired tropes of Polynesian male buffoonery, is minstrelsy, and at times is repeatedly misogynistic towards the film’s heroine, make it difficult for me to reconcile Disney’s Māui with the Māui I grew up listening to on the radio as a young boy in Vava’u, Tonga.
The Trust had issues with Māui along the way, and the final representation is the result of negotiations.
It’s apparent that when Māui shows up on the screen, this is where Disney asserted itself, because you actually feel the story shift and assume the recognizable, tired, predictable Disney storytelling formula that is shaped by merchandising potential than character development.
In the film, it was Māui’s arrogance that triggered the catastrophic event that halted oceanic exploration on the fictional island of Motunui, Moana’s island home.
This is how Disney imagineers explain the thousand year gap between the settlement of western Polynesia and eastern Polynesia.
In actuality, navigation never ceased. It was alive and well in the west, which facilitated empire building and commercial trade between the islands of Sāmoa, Tonga, Fiji, neighboring islands such as Vanuatu, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Niue, and even reaching as far north into the Marianas and other atolls in Micronesia.
There were actual schools of navigation, operated by master navigators dedicated to the science of wayfinding, a holistic discipline that incorporated astronomy, oceanography, marine biology, meteorology, geography and even biocentrism.
The expansion into eastern Polynesia was not hampered by an irrational fear of the sea. Rather, eastward expansion was sparked by several things, namely, the conditions for long distance voyaging were favorable due to changes in the planetʻs atmosphere and geography. But more importantly, let’s not undermine the intellectual capacity of our voyaging ancestors to even understand what that meant, and that an accumulation of a millennium’s worth of collective knowledge and ingenuity can lead to the technological advances necessary to pull off such a marvelous feat.
Is Moana worth watching? Of course. It’s a beautiful movie. Auliʻi’s strong performance alone is worth the price of several tickets. The supporting cast of Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, and even a cameo voice appearance by Troy Polamalu adds to the experience. Jemaine Clement as the bling encrusted crab Tamatoa is more believable (and bearable) than Disney Māui. And then there is the music of Te Vaka.
If you haven’t heard of Te Vaka, shame on you. Here’s the link to their website. I highly recommend you start your collection with the first four albums. (In the words of Disney Māui, “you’re welcome!”
But Moana is not a perfect film and the root of the film’s shortcomings directly relate to the uncomfortable fact that this film that we claim is about US was birthed from the minds and voyeuristic gaze of two white men, and that this practice is still acceptable in 2016.
Just listening to Clements and Musker on the red carpet wax romantically about their motivations for the movie is cringe inducing — like Disney Māui’s haka. (Yikes!) It comes off as disingenuous, considering Disney as a corporation is clearly transparent about who they are, what they do, how they do it and what they stand to gain financially.
Even The Rock knows this when he unabashedly declared in a TV interview he was lured by the money. (He might have been joking.)
With that said, as we go to the theaters, I hope we will make a conscious choice for just one time, as I know many of us will see it multiple times, to transcend being mindless consumers and become resisting spectators, and recognize that the eye candy we see on the big screen are really just surface, readily accessible manifestations of deep cultural treasures that Disney, nor any outsider, can never touch. These treasures can only be felt by the heart and by our own lived experiences.
And when we see the character of Moana overcoming great odds on the big screen to save her village, even at the risk of losing her own life, we aren’t witnessing anything new that we don’t already know about ourselves — love, sacrifice, determination, resilience, family, reciprocity, conservation and stewardship of the planet are the hallmarks of our rich oceanic culture, values that have existed long before Disney mined our stories, values that can never be replicated in box office ticket and merchandise sales.
PS. May I suggest a book for Christmas? Check out Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors.