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Maui looms larger than life in ‘Moana’

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    Maui is a demigod — half god, half mortal, all awesome — voiced by actor Dwayne Johnson. Charismatic and funny, he wields a magical fishhook that allows him to shapeshift.

Nobody’s saying Maui, that most rascally of Polynesian demigods, isn’t strong. He once beat the sun into submission with a jawbone and yanked the Hawaiian Islands out from the bottom of the ocean. So yes, Maui’s strong.

But big? Not so much.

In illustrated books, comics and animated films, Maui often resembles a lithe teenager on the verge of manhood. In Arman Manookian’s 1927 drawing “Maui Snaring the Sun,” he’s a typical beachboy; in Peter Gossage’s classic books, including “How Maui Found His Father and the Magic Jawbone,” he’s got enviable six-pack abs. And in more recent children’s books by Maori artist Gavin Bishop (“Maui and the Goddess of Fire”) and Hawaiian writer Gabrielle Ahuli‘i (“Maui Hooks the Islands”), he’s slim and impish.

So when the first trailers for “Moana” were released earlier this year, many fans of Maui were taken aback. In this Disney animated film, which opens Wednesday, Moana (voiced by Auli‘i Cravalho), a feisty, adventure-seeking teenager, sets off on a quest to locate the long-lost demigod. When she ultimately finds him, he looks nothing like the Maui of countless children’s books. For one thing, he’s big, really big — somewhere between Dwayne Johnson (who voices the character) and an Airstream trailer. He also has a great head of thick, wild hair (in most versions, Maui’s hair is tied back in a neat topknot) and biceps bigger around than his co-star’s waist.

“It was definitely a shock when I saw him,” said Preston McNeil, director of the animated short “Maui and the Sun.” McNeil, who is of Maori descent, grew up reading the Gossage books in New Zealand, where the books are familiar favorites. “Maui’s got these four big brothers, and he’s constantly hiding and sneaking around,” he said. “He’s the youngest, and cheeky, so you don’t think of him as a big man.”

“My first reaction? Well, he has fantastic hair, as all Disney characters do,” said Jing Jing Tsong, who illustrated “Maui Hooks the Islands.”

And then there are those, including a New Zealand member of Parliament and a professional rugby player from Samoa, who say the depiction perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight.

So how did Disney’s Maui get that size (and that hair)? Slowly. “In early versions of the film, he was smaller,” said David Pimentel, the film’s head of story. “He was shorter and bald. He wasn’t the most beautiful person.”

But then he grew. And grew. For five years Disney consulted scores of people on research trips throughout the South Pacific — specialists in fishing techniques and tattoos, ancient navigation and traditional dance. These experts formed the film’s Oceanic Story Trust, and it was members of this group who pushed the filmmakers for a bigger Maui. “They were telling us that he needs to be a hero, almost like Superman,” Pimentel said.

“Even in the myths where he’s small, he’s larger than life,” said Osnat Shurer, the film’s producer. “And in animation we’re not literal. You’re trying to find the essence of the character. We always felt that the audience needed to know right away, visually, that this guy is stronger than anybody else.”

The larger canvas was a boon to animation supervisors Mack Kablan and Eric Goldberg, though it posed a major technical challenge as well. The movement of human skin is much tougher to render in computer animation than clothing; since Maui is one of the most underdressed Disney characters in recent memory, Kablan’s team had its work cut out for it. “We looked at football players, pro wrestlers and ‘world’s strongest men,’” he said. To further complicate things, Goldberg (the supervising animator on the Genie in “Aladdin”) was enlisted to add a two-dimensional animated tattoo — “Mini Maui,” the demigod’s conscience and constant companion — onto Maui’s enormous CGI body.

By the time the film’s creators were done with him, Maui was so large that online critics thought Disney’s version looked more obese than Olympian, feeding into negative stereotypes of Polynesian men and women. “I have seen the trailer to this film, and I was astonished that anyone would depict Maui like this,” Bishop said.

Disney did upsize Moana as well. But while Moana has been celebrated for her extra heft and more realistic body shape — compare her thicker frame to, say, Sleeping Beauty’s or Ariel’s — Maui has taken flak for his weight gain.

“I totally get it,” said David Derrick, a “Moana” story artist who is of Samoan descent. “But I think a lot of those things come from people being very nervous and scared that a big company is portraying this beloved cultural character. I believe that when they see the whole thing, they’ll be won over by how we treated him.”


Another big change: Maui’s general appearance, size aside. In most illustrated versions of the myths, the demigod is well groomed and nattily dressed. In “Maui Hooks the Islands,” Tsong has him in a malo, a Native Hawaiian loincloth, while in McNeil’s version he’s wearing a “piupiu,” a Maori garment made from strands of flax. Throughout much of “Moana,” however, the demigod is clad in leaves, his hair down. This is no dis from Disney, however. Without giving away too much of the story, by the time Moana catches up with him, Maui’s been away from civilization — and a mirror — for years.

The questions about Maui’s size and look are even more remarkable given the care that Disney’s team took getting them right. Members of the Oceanic Story Trust weighed in on each of the film’s nine incarnations as the movie evolved over the years. Samoan tattoo artist Su’a Peter Sulu’ape, a sixth-generation master tattooist, checked every mark and pattern; fishermen in Fiji helped with the film’s boats and ropes. “We would not lock a design until we had someone’s eyes on it,” Shurer said.


While Disney’s version of Maui differs wildly from their own, previous Maui portrayers are eager to see what the creators of “Moana” have come up with. “I’ve got two young boys, so I’ll take them to that, for sure,” McNeil said.

Ahuli‘i, the writer, said she planned to see the film with friends and hoped that it would inspire viewers to seek out the originals. While doing research on her own book, she consulted works like Martha Beckwith’s classic 1940 volume “Hawaiian Mythology” and the prints of the Big Island artist Dietrich Varez, and was stunned by the sheer variety of tales.

“Just with the Hawaiian myth we adapted, there’s an Oahu version, there’s a Kauai version, there are even regional differences within the islands themselves,” she said. “There are so many variations of the legends, and I think that speaks to the strengths of these stories.”

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