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‘Moana’ a Disney hit but portrayal irks some in the Pacific

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This image released by Disney shows tenacious teenager Moana, left, voiced by Auliʻi Cravalho, recruits a demigod named Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, to help her become a master wayfinder and sail out on a daring mission to save her people.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> Disney’s animated movie “Moana” debuted to critical acclaim and box office success over the Thanksgiving weekend, but some people in the South Pacific dislike how it depicts their culture.

Of particular concern is the movie’s portrayal of the demigod Maui, who is shown as enormous and egotistical, albeit with a good heart. That has been jarring for some in Polynesia, where obesity rates are among the highest in the world and where Maui is a revered hero in oral traditions.

Criticism from the Pacific has likely stung Disney, which went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the movie was culturally appropriate after being accused of racism in previous movies such as “Aladdin” (1992). For “Moana,” the filmmakers traveled to the Pacific and met with anthropologists, historians, fisherman and linguists, part of what they came to call the Oceanic Story Trust.

The fictional movie takes place 3,000 years ago in the islands of Polynesia, an area that includes Hawaii, Tonga and Tahiti. The star is 16-year-old Moana, voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, who goes on an ocean voyage with Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The movie made $82 million over the five-day weekend, placing it behind only “Frozen” (2013) for a Thanksgiving debut.

Disney suffered an early embarrassment when it decided to sell costumes of Maui, which featured brown shirts and long pants with full-body tattoos. Disney put the costumes in stores in time for Halloween, but quickly pulled them after critics compared them to blackface.

Producer Osnat Shurer, speaking by phone from Berlin where she was promoting the movie, said the moviemakers spent five years working closely with people in the Pacific to create what they believe is a beautiful representation.

“The costume fell short of that,” she said. “As different things grow around the movie, sometimes they don’t hit the same mark.”

Shurer said that when it came to figuring out the character of Maui, they found that different islands, villages, and even households, had different impressions of him.

“To some he’s a Superman, to others he’s a trickster,” she said.

In all the stories, she said, Maui was clearly larger than life. At first, however, they envisioned him as a little smaller, and bald. But he just seemed to grow as the movie progressed. She said animators try to find the essence of a character and then exaggerate those features.

“We knew we wanted him to be big and wanted him to be strong,” she said. “But he also moves with an incredible lightness.”

She said she hopes Pacific Islanders see the movie with an open mind.

“I feel good about the movie we’ve created and that it can withstand scrutiny,” she said. “All I can say is we did it with love and respect.”

In New Zealand, the movie does not debut until after Christmas. But Teresia Teaiwa, a senior lecturer in Pacific studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said she was concerned about the portrayal of Maui.

“Before Disney, I’ve seen a lot of other representations, and Maui is a hero,” she said. “I think it’s clear from the trailers I’ve seen that he’s a buffoon in Disney. It’s a dramatic shift. He was a trickster but not a buffoon.”

Teaiwa said if Disney really wanted to be culturally correct they would have paired Maui with a female deity, as he is in most legends, and not with a teenager.

“They wanted to get it right commercially without getting it wrong culturally,” Teaiwa said. “But there are some things that they clearly didn’t mind getting wrong.”

She said there seemed to be a U.S. stereotype of Pacific Island men as huge, perhaps because the main exposure to them seemed to be through activities like NFL football.

Teaiwa said she was appalled by the Maui costume, particularly because some ethnologists from early last century had managed to collect the preserved, tattooed skin of Pacific people who had died.

“I thought it was macabre. I thought it was really creepy,” she said of the costume. “It gave me the shudders to see something like that produced so lightly and in such a trivial way.”

New Zealand politician Marama Fox, the co-leader of the indigenous Maori Party, said most Disney heroes tended to look far more muscular than Maui.

“I still don’t think that’s an accurate depiction of what Maui would look like or should look like,” she said. “And it’s a little bit of cultural misappropriation.”

But asked if she planned to see the movie, Fox, a mother of nine, said she had little choice.

“How am I going to keep my kids away from singing Maori people and Polynesians?” she said. “Of course they’re going to want to go and see it.”

78 responses to “‘Moana’ a Disney hit but portrayal irks some in the Pacific”

  1. lokela says:

    Get a grip people. It’s just a movie. Fiction. Not non fiction. You don’t like it too bad.

  2. LittleEarl_01 says:

    “She said she hopes Pacific Islanders see the movie with an open mind.” Poor Pacific Islanders. How about a movie showing their brutality and savageness?

  3. Ken_Conklin says:

    I’ve seen guys on the street who look just like Disney’s Maui, including size and choke tattoos. Shoots, you can see guys lidat, carrying spears or shark tooth gut rippers, proudly displaying themselves on truckbed floats during Kamehameha Day parades.

    • Hapa_Haole_Boy says:

      Haha, this exactly.

    • Jack Tatum says:

      Let me guess, you’re a white guy? If I’m wrong then my apologies.

      • mtf1953 says:

        Whether he’s a white guy or not, his observation is accurate. We all know many examples of large Polynesians who are not embarrassed by their size. The whole world should take note and Hawaii and all of the pacific islanders should be proud that they embrace a diversity of body sizes and shapes.

        • allie says:

          True. Although I have heard Mililani Trask arguing that Hawaiians were thin before Western and Asian food arrived. The big Mac ruined the diet of the Hawaiin who worked hard and ate healthier foods like taro, etc. Not sure if any of that is true.I have read that it is truer of the Hawaiian commoners who worked hard to feed the ali’i. The ali’i apparently were well fed and content with the taxes they collected from the commoners they ruled over.

        • Jack Tatum says:

          I’ve seen people from all races that are overweight; I’m trying to figure out how his statement is “accurate.” The majority of the people who may see this movie may never have any personal contact with Pacific Islanders, thus, their only knowledge will come from what they see on the screen, which again, is a stereotype. His being white means he, like you, have the “white privilege” of pontificating an opinion on topics such as racial stereotypes because they don’t affect you. Look at some of the old Disney cartoons from years ago, and how they stereotyped blacks as lazy and slow. Stay in you lane.

        • kennie1933 says:

          From what I’ve read in Hawaiian history textbooks is that Hawaiian women who were huge (today we might call them obese) were revered as beauties and made good wives because they were considered healthier. If you were skinny, you would be considered sickly. If you look at drawings from the past, most women were large.

      • allie says:

        Micronesia’s are not necessarily large but they bitterly fight Hawaiians who have come to fear them. Read the HPD reports

      • ens623 says:

        Really Allie where do you get your information from? Hawaiians fear them what kind of crap is that.

    • hywnsytl says:

      Its not like we hears american germans complaining about nazi movies when they killed millions of innocent people, or movies and the news showing white people of the KKK who used to hang and whip women and children. You dont here white people complaining about being depicted in movies, news, plays, and reality TV as selfess, self absorb, no it all’s. Whites dont complain when people write about how the have no attachment to any land because they are all immigrants, or that they started America by being traitors and revolting against england. so please lets not complain about a cartoon movie, just like dont complain about the cartoon Conklin, its just for amusement and not to be taken seriously.

      • kennie1933 says:

        I’m Asian, so I guess I should have been offended by Mulan. OK, her eyes were kind of slanty, but I actually enjoyed that cartoon. The only thing I took away from it was a strong female character who saved China. It’s based on a legend, so I never thought of it as a historical piece.

  4. marcus says:

    I would tell these detractors to “grow up” but you sort of have to grow down to watch full length cartoons. I enjoyed it!!!

  5. localguy says:

    Sad to say there are always a few very weak minded people where nothing will please them. They falsely think only they have the right view of the world, everyone else is wrong.

    Not a perfect world, the movie is just fine as it is. You just have to deal with it Buttercup.

  6. Bdpapa says:

    Its a movie, just a movie!

  7. nippy68 says:

    Next thing that’ll happen is Disney will donate a few million dollars to some kind of Pacific Islander charity and every Pacific Islander crybaby will shut up and say we loved the movie.

    • NanakuliBoss says:

      I wonder if Disney would redo the Moses stories. Parting of the Red Sea with talking fishes like Nemo and Dory. Oh and adding a little genie for excitement like Alladin.

  8. soundofreason says:

    It will bring the culture to attention of MANY who would otherwise know nothing at all about it’s existence. ANYthing that does that, in any fashion, is a plus in my book.

  9. kailua000 says:

    everyone wants to complain about everything now days. People have to find something to claim they are wronged or victimized. Its getting old. Its a cartoon. Its fictional, its fun. At least little girls and boys can go see someone with the same color of skin on the big screen. Get over it. Adults analyze this stuff, kids dont. Now feminist groups are saying Disney is sexist because of the princesses waiting for their prince to save them. So what? its fiction. Do they want all the princesses to be lesbians like in Frozen? Let kids have their imagination. My friends and I grew up strong, independent women with great families despite all the supposed sexism and racism in Disney films and toys. Get over it.

    • allie says:

      largely agree. No one group has a monopoly on how Maui, a non-existent “demi-god” might have looked if he existed. He is depicted in various ways throughout the Pacific. But cultural gatekeepers want to weigh in and be praised for their sophisticated critique of Disney, KS Iolani or some other institution. It has gotten very old and was always largely phony in any case.

      • HakunaMatata says:

        Really Allie?!? Non-existent “demi-god”?!? How do you know? Wonder how you’d feel if Polynesians referred to Native American beliefs as “non-existent”?

        • allie says:

          Sorry but Hawaiians today are sophisticated enough to know it was a myth. I am amazed at how outsiders like you want to claim Hawaiians are romantic savages who adhere slavishly to ancient practices. Truth is, for example, tens of thousands of Hawaiians are devout Christians. One never hears about them of course.

        • HakunaMatata says:

          Outsiders like me?!? You presume to know me? Excuse me dear, but I’m Polynesian. You’re the outsider who presumes to speak on behalf of us. How ’bout you leave that to us? There are still many who believe in the Gods of old. Dismissing their beliefs as myth is your way of dismissing something that you do not believe in personally.

        • sjean says:

          Hakuna, It’s ok for you to lift a Swahili handle? Are you Swahili? If you accept Maui do you also accept Zeus? Or is that just plain silly?

        • HakunaMatata says:

          I personally do not. But I’m not going to disrespect those that do believe.

    • Hapa_Haole_Boy says:

      “Do they want all the princesses to be lesbians like in Frozen?”. I generally agree with your post, but this line cracked me up, also I don’t think it’s true (Anna and Elsa, in Frozen, are sisters). Still, good post.

    • kennie1933 says:

      I’ve often wondered about Disney and how they have so many PRINCESSES. Not as many male roles….Jungle Book, Robin Hood…. But yes, it’s great to see a Polynesian based movie.

  10. Ewaduffer says:

    Ah yes, the mystical “some people” that we always read about that have a negative opinion about something popular.
    Stop whining!!!

  11. Pirate says:

    No matter how much research you do and community involvement you get, you will never be able to please everybody.

  12. HakunaMatata says:

    The few who complain about this movie are loud and are getting attention from the press. The only complaints that I’ve seen so far have come from self-hating Maori and Hawaiians. Moana is a wonderful movie set in the South Pacific of 2000 years ago. That means its in the era before Polynesians made it to Aotearoa or Hawaii. The main complainer in this article is Teresia Teaiwa, a senior lecturer in Pacific studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Translation: She’s upset that Disney didn’t include her in the group of experts they consulted, so she’s gonna complain. How the heck does she, or anybody, know what Maui looked like? Maybe he was twice the size of the Disney Maui?? This stupid Ho hasn’t even seen the movie yet – but she gets her name in the international press. Bottom line is this: 99 out of every hundred Polynesians who see this movie love it. The remaining 1 our of every hundred will complain about anything.

  13. ryan02 says:

    They have high obesity rates, yet they complain that Maui is depicted as large? First, the cartoon appears to be muscular, not fat. And second, if Disney made him thin, Disney would face complaints that the character was “white washed” and doesn’t reflect how most polynesians look. You can’t win.

  14. etalavera says:

    The Rock says it’s okay so I’m cool with it.

  15. Workingrl says:

    Cartoon or not, the character is ugly and grotesque in appearance. Greatly exaggerated facial features as well. Reminds me of Shrek.

  16. mtf1953 says:

    This is just more BS from people who like to whine about everything. 1. Maui does not exist. If someone want to imagine him as an awesome big man, go for it. 2. I love the fact that the Hawaii and other Polynesian cultures are not embarrassed about be large and, yes, maybe even fat. It’s hardly an endorsement for obesity. Too many people in Hawaii believe they, alone, are the keepers of the polynesian culture. Any deviation from their perceptions is viewed as heresy. It get’s old.

    This could also be another round of trying to create controversy by the media where no controversy really exists. Interviewing a few people about their displeasure hardly balances the over 80 million who have enjoyed the FICTIONAL characters in Moana.

    • allie says:

      true…silly indeed.

    • kennie1933 says:

      Awesome comment. You are correct at every point. No one really know what ancient people looked like until photography was invented. Yes, there are drawings in almost every ancient culture, but in Hawaii in particular, the ancients drew petroglyphs. Are we to believe that ancient people had triangular torsos and sticks for arms and legs? In early drawings, Hawaiian women in the monarchy were depicted as being large because that was the standard of beauty at the time. If that’s the case, then the slim character Moana is ugly. It’s just an animated movie. Watch for the message, not the accuracy of the depictions because really, no one knows for sure.

  17. 9ronboz says:

    silly to say the least

  18. lsu11 says:

    How many is “some people”?

  19. justmyview371 says:

    Pacific people get irked about everything.

  20. fiveo says:

    It is a movie and a disney cartoon film to boot so I do not see why some have taken offense. It was meant to be funny and humorous.

  21. KonaGolden says:

    Teresia Teaiwa, you need to relax. I didn’t find the movie at all “offensive” and I am of Polynesian descent. It’s a freaking cartoon movie, kick back and relax, not everything is racist, it’s racist in the mind of a racist. Stop being ignorant and go back to lecturing your students. Silly woman, stop it.

    • allie says:

      I am indigenous Mandan and do not find it offensive. Maui never existed outside of a fanciful myth. It made for a nice story and no Hawaiin today “believes” it. It makes for an interesting cultural narrative. Odd that so many think Hawaiians are incapable of science, logic, empiricism or rational thought

      • sewing4u says:

        Mandans, squaw, Indian all same to most educated people. Don’t go differentiating yourself cause you think your special. Don’t you have a oil pipeline protest to be at, your people could use your help against big oil. What can of mandin are you?

        • sewing4u says:

          And 5’9 114lbs, I’d bet two dimes it’s more like 5’2″ 260. Volunteering that kind of info only highlights her/his insecurity.

        • ens623 says:

          His insecurity, Allie been called out before and does not refute anyone calling him a guy. Or should I say catfish.

  22. okmaluna says:

    Were the internet nonexistent to aggregate all the irks this movie would be called totally enjoyable.

  23. PMINZ says:

    No matter what movie or book that comes out – there are some that don’t like it, this is no exception.

  24. bluemoki says:

    I saw the movie and thought it was really well done. Maui turned out to be the hero in the end, the only thing I disliked about him was there were a few too many “Chee-hoos!”

  25. elvisdiddy808 says:

    Love how these NZ complainers have all these complaints about a movie that they have not even seen yet. At least watch it first.

  26. CloudForest says:

    I was at The Wave in Waikiki in the late 70’s – early 80’s, when Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap started playing the dance crowd went crazy! Believe me, when you have that many ‘locals’ dancing with wild abandon to such a heavy beat – al stereotypes are thrown out the door!! It was a sight to behold for a scrawny surfer such as I. No matter how they portrayed Maui in the film, it wouldn’t matter to real life.

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