I’ve finally gotten over the “this is the best thing ever!” phase of consuming a new piece of media, and now I’m wrapped up in the “I have thoughts about it now” phase. So I’m not sure who’s going to read this entire thing, but this is my blog and I’ll write what I want. Whatever.
One of the criticisms I’ve seen about Moana is that Disney seemed to pick and choose what they wanted to portray in terms of Polynesian culture, and I understand that some Pacific Islanders felt that this belittled their unique cultures because it made it seem like it was a monolith and not as diverse as it actually is, and that Moana should’ve been better off just portraying one culture (whether it be Samoan, Tahitian, Fijian, Maori, or Hawaiian, or any of the myriad Pacific Islander cultures). I understand the concerns of these comments, and I do respect them. I sympathize with them. It must hurt to get excited over a Disney movie and then find out they got some things wrong.
I’ve read criticisms about the portrayal of Maui, who is considered THE Hero of the people among many Pacific Islanders and apparently feels more like a lunk-headed buffoon in the movie, and this is far from how he’s portrayed in the real stories. That this is a Maui who is palpable and acceptable to white audiences and it might have been better not to have Maui in the movie at all and just focus on Moana.
I think I’d actually prefer a movie like that too. Maui was kind of superfluous to the story, and Moana could’ve learned about wayfinding from anyone else and it would not have affected the outcome. The whole Macguffin about returning the heart of Te Fiti and Moana restoring the balance of life could’ve been done without Maui getting his redemption arc. I imagine that Disney wanted Maui in it because he was there at the inception of the story, where the directors wanted Maui to be the main character and Moana be the supporting role, but then their roles were switched. Somewhere along the line, maybe they felt they had to sacrifice direct authenticity for a more feminist reading of the story? I’m not sure if this is what happened; I don’t know the details of the development of the movie, but it’s like they felt they couldn’t do both? Have an authentic Maui and a strong heroine as well? I don’t know.
It could just be a westernized reading of the Maui stories that got it completely wrong. Disney did collect a group of experts on the region so that there’s cultural authenticity, but perhaps it wasn’t enough. Whatever Disney did, they must have satisfied this brain trust, otherwise they wouldn’t have still been involved in the movie and not have their names in the credits, right? Did Disney dupe these people? Again, I don’t know. But some Pacific Islanders are very disappointed with the movie. I’m not sure if Disney could do anything else to make a movie that would satisfy everyone, because that’s impossible.
I think the most obvious thing would’ve been to get Pacific Islanders to be in charge of the production and not just Disney asking some experts about the culture, but there’s a Catch-22. Hardly any Pacific Islanders are in the animation industry and the animation industry doesn’t support Pacific Islanders. It’s either, Disney risks getting stuff wrong in order to make a movie that’s based on Polynesian culture, or Polynesian culture doesn’t get represented in mainstream popular culture at all. The animation industry absolutely needs to change and maybe someday we’ll look back at Moana the same way we look at Pocahontas in a “nice try” sort of way. There has to be a start, and maybe Moana will encourage more Pacific Islanders to go into the animation industry to tell their own stories and it will be better for everyone.
But I’m kind of worried about what’s going to happen with Disney’s next animated feature, Coco, which is supposedly based on Mexican culture and specifically Day of the Dead motifs. To me this sounds like a step backwards from Moana, just thinking that all the skull painting and whatnot looks cool so that’s a must for animation. I don’t know. Polynesia has such a rich cultural and mythological heritage, I’m kind of surprised that it hasn’t been the focus until now. But with Coco, there’s already Book of Life, which is a movie that was made by Latinos, starring a mostly Latino voice cast, and I know one shouldn’t pit one movie against another but I can’t see how Coco could be a better movie than Book of Life was. Again, it’s bringing an aspect of a different culture to the mainstream, but again, I don’t think it’s being made by people who are of the culture? I don’t know. I’m torn Book of Life did decently at the box office, but a Disney movie has built in cache which would probably make Coco monstrously successful because…it’s Disney.
And that’s the conundrum. Disney is a major popular culture force in the world, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Representation matters, and now Disney has placed Polynesia in the mainstream consciousness. It’s given Pacific Islanders a world stage and it will be interesting to see what happens next.