‘Moana’ navigates through Polynesian culture


By Shelby Ford

“Moana” is everything you would expect from a new feature animated movie from Disney. There is a strong-willed Princess who goes on a great adventure with her animal sidekick and many musical intervals.
Although it’s not just the catchy lyrics, tear-jerking story or beautiful animation that sets “Moana” apart, but the unique attention to detail and cultural history that’s behind it.

Screencap from Disney's Moana
Screencap from Disney’s Moana
Photo from Photobucket

The story is set in the past, on the Polynesian island, Motunui, where the character Moana is daughter of the chief. Moana disregards her royal duty, and by decree of the ocean itself, goes on a journey in search of demigod, Maui, to save her island and her people.
Even though the world of “Moana” is fantasy, with touches of magic, gods and fantastical underwater beasts, the ties to Polynesian culture are authentic.
On a visit to Hawaii, I got to experience Moana’s land for myself, being part of the triangle of islands that make up Polynesia. Although in the film, the cultural ties are not completely that of Hawaii.
The creators of “Moana”, John Musker and Ron Clements, also known for their work in “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”, based the world of “Moana” on Polynesian islands of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti,  Bora Bora, and New Zealand.
These people’s lives were influenced on the nature around them. Their clothes were made from the plants on the island, such as Tapa cloth, which is traditionally made from bark of the mulberry tree.
Their tribal dances, such as Hula, were emulates the motion of the waves, and the ocean. They would decorated themselves in tea leaves embellished with local flowers. These tea leaves were also used for cooking. The Hawaiian people still cherish these traditions.
In “Moana”, her island tribe is based on Hawaiian culture, and includes elements of Samoan and other Polynesian cultures. The character Moana, and the rest of her tribe, are clothed in flowers and grasses that look very similar to ancient Samoan clothing. The dress and headdress worn by Moana, is an ancient outfit worn by the Taupou, who was a female, commonly the daughter of the chief, elevated to high rank to care for the people of her island. The people are also adorned with tribal “stick and poke” tattoos, which can be seen in many cultures of Polynesia.
Part of the storyline of “Moana” is the discovery that the people of the island, were once “voyagers,” navigating the open ocean and discovering new islands in their unique multi-hulled canoe called at outrigger.
People of Polynesia had no need for maps, for they would use the sky, stars and ocean to direct their way through the Pacific Ocean.
These navigation skills were passed down generation to generation through song. Moana learned her past through “We Know the Way,” sung in Samoan and English translation by New Zealand musician, Opetaia Foa’I, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame.
The legend of the god, Maui, on which the film’s plot is based, is a myth that all Polynesian cultures share, not just Hawaii. The Hawaiian island Maui was named after the explorer who discovered it, who in fact was named after the legendary god himself.
Legend says that the god Maui lifted islands from the sea with his giant fish hook, convinced the sun to slow down and make days longer, and planted a giant eel into the ground that sprouted coconut trees. All these myths are depicted in the song, “You’re Welcome,” performed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who voices Maui.
“Moana” opens your eyes to a unique culture, amoungst vivid animation. What makes the film special, beyond Disney and princesses, is that “Moana” is based on real traditions of Polynesian cultures. Children and adults alike will enjoy watching “Moana.”

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