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I had my reservations about Moana. I braced myself for cringe-worthy cultural misunderstandings and outright disrespectful and offensive representations. The conversations about the film began long before its release, much to the annoyance of those who felt social media was being flooded with irrelevant opinions.
After the release of a teaser clip of a scene in which Maui tells Moana legends about his amazing feats, there was a resounding cry of outrage online about the portrayal of Maui’s character as one of buffoonery and arrogance. Loudest of all, however, was the criticism that Maui’s portrayal as an overweight “half pig, half hippo” (online meme, 2016) was inaccurate and disrespectful. Maui is given the role of comedic relief (I think) and Moana’s reluctant side-kick.
After visiting the Pacific, directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) wanted the film to showcase the Pacific as more than a holiday destination, “because we had a life-changing experience — going to a world we weren’t familiar with and coming away changed.” They felt inspired to tell these never-before-heard stories. How novel. They asked Taika Waititi to draft the initial screenplay, then changed basically everything aside from, apparently, the spiral as the symbol of voyaging, and naming “Tafiti [sic]… and characters like Heihei.” When asked via Twitter if any of the original script was used in the final cut, Taika responded, “Yes, this bit: EXT. OCEAN – DAY.”
Moana is a product of a giant multi-billion dollar transnational conglomerate. Disney is a very well-oiled money making machine. It sucks up stories from everywhere in the world, throughout history, and retells them in a way that is digestible, profitable, and very emotive. Disney took recognisable elements of Pacific history, culture, and language, squeezing them into familiar plot sequences such as a main character trying to define who they are (Mulan, Tarzan), struggling to balance following your heart versus doing what is “responsible” and “right” (Tiana, Pocahontas, Mulan again), and meeting a mostly-nuisance sidekick based on myths and legends (like in Mulan). I should note here, the similar stories in parenthesis are mostly non-white stories.
The story is familiar for all its Disney tropes. Of course they were going to beat Tamatoa and get Maui’s hook back. Of course Maui and Moana were going to have a rift in which they’re separated (he ditches). Of course she wanted to give up and of course she didn’t. Of course he returns. These are familiar narratives, not known for their indigeneity.
Disney’s primary audience isn’t Pacific people (big surprise). Their business model has no reason to cater to the interests of Pacific nations, people, and stories, until their profits are threatened. Remember when they pulled production of the children’s Maui costume?
This movie does not claim to be an accurate anthropological telling of the Pacific, but if its creators recognise that these stories haven’t been heard before, and should be told, why wouldn’t they give the platform to Pacific people to tell them? This story is not for us, not primarily anyway. It has enough Pacific elements to look like a Pacific story, which is apparently enough.
For some people, Moana is an empowering representation — finally, Pacific culture and knowledge (particularly in navigation) is being validated on the big screen. For others, it’s yet another example of non-indigenous people taking the attractive and digestible parts of a people, disregarding the historical and contextual nuances, and repackaging it for their own people to showcase how knowledgeable and talented they are. For others still, Moana does both.
I had my reservations going in, and I still have them now.
So much good has come out of this movie, though. The world is all the better now that we have Auli’i Cravalho in our lives. Hearing Te Vaka in surround sound gave me chills in a way no soundtrack has before. Hearing Opetaia’s voice as rich as ever and knowing “Tamahana” can have exposure to a global audience makes me so proud. Seeing the power of maternal relationships portrayed on the big screen as the source of Moana’s comfort and wisdom was nothing short of amazing.
For the record, I cried when I watched this movie — harder than I did during Frozen’s “Do You Want To Build A Snowman”. Although the story archs and Maui’s characterisation felt exasperating and uninspired, there were discrete moments that blew me away. Moments that I held onto to get me through all the parts I rolled my eyes at.
The moments between the wahine/vaine/fafine ma tama’ita’i were breathtaking, particularly Moana and Grandma Tala dancing by the water, and the hongi between Te Fiti and Moana. The most poignant relationship for me, however, was between Moana and her mother, Sina. The brief screen time that Moana has with her mother were scenes I tried not to sob during (just a silent endless stream of tears).
When Moana’s mother explained why her father was so strict on her to stay within the boundaries of the reef, she explained how he was trying to protect Moana from suffering the dangerous and fatal consequences of the same mistake he once made. The ocean didn’t choose him, the way it did Moana, but he didn’t know that. Sina was the patient mediator between two people she loved. She counsels Moana by telling her, “Sometimes who we wish we were, what we wish we could do — it’s just not meant to be.” There was something about the longing in her voice, and the sadness in her eyes, that made me wonder, did she wish to have more autonomy and opportunity to go on adventures the way her daughter wants to? In this scene I saw a glimpse of “what if” in her. But she chose to remain where her village needed her to be, she fulfilled her role as was necessary.
She does not urge her daughter to stay, but explains her father’s perspective. When Moana runs away, she is the only one who sees. She goes to Moana, she says nothing, she helps her pack. She hugs her daughter goodbye, not knowing when or if she’d return. Cue endless stream of tears.
Sina would have been so frightened for her daughter’s safety, knowing what her husband had experienced, knowing the history of those who never made it back home. And yet, she helped her pack. This courageous gesture of love was inspiring — to watch a parent let their child go, despite all their instincts to keep them close, keep them safe.
She let her daughter go, and her daughter came back. This reminds me of a famous proverb: E lele le toloa ae ma’au i le vai (Though we leave, venture far and wide, we always return home). Moments like this resonated in a deep way. However, it’s this resonance that Dr Vincent Diaz cautions us to be wary of, as a tool used by expert storytellers to lure us with rhetoric that plays to our emotional realities without giving us substance. Dr Teresia Teaiwa reminds us further that, “not everything that makes you feel good is good for you.”
I have no simple response to or review of Moana, no easy way to reconcile the many contradictions I experience when consuming it, engaging with it, questioning it. Seeing my nieces and nephews bellow out the lyrics, The village believes in us! The village belieeeeeves!, warms my heart, knowing that there’s an example for them of brown-skinned beauty and heroism. I hope that they grow up without differentiating the fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed dolls as the only pretty option while the dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed dolls are labelled ugly. I hope they grow up knowing they are descendents of greatness. I hope they become curious about the plethora of stories and histories that can only be heard in their indigenous language. I hope they are eager to learn their indigenous language. These are the best-case scenarios I hope will be the effects of Moana.
We keep our island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way