The following is a review of the new animated feature Moana, originally written and posted to Facebook last month after an early screening of the film for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.
When news surfaced about Disney's new Polynesian "princess," Moana, I quickly raised an eyebrow and scratched the back of my head. I worried about how Disney would portray our Polynesian people and commodify our cultures. As most know, Disney has a long history of misrepresenting and misconstruing different cultures, ethnic background, and stories like Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998) while profiting simultaneously. While many of us from the Pacific Islander community raised our eyebrows, scratched the back of our heads, and wrote critical think pieces about Moana (2016), our community also awaited Moana's arrival gleefully.
I learned of Disney's process to create Moana and from a cultural standpoint, they followed protocol. The producers developed an Oceanic Trust to advise them on accuracy, they conducted research on many Pacific Islands learning from elders, the people, master navigators, master tattoo artists, and they hired an all Polynesian cast to be the voices of the characters. Even though this seemed culturally appropriate, I wasn't havin' it! I still had an issue with the fact that the creators of the film were palagi (Caucasian). Despite critical analysis, our community was thrilled. As more and more of our community's excitement grew around Moana, more and more of our community's critical thought and protest quickly followed.
For me, I was aboard the critical canoe crashing ashore people's timelines giving critical thought after thought about Moana. It was extremely empowering to see our community rally together in consciousness, address Disney, and hold them accountable. The critical analysis from so many Pacific Islanders in academia grew so large that it shut down a costume of Maui's skin suit that Disney released. I was appalled to see this item for sale because it's similar to the detriment of Blackface. However, I was extremely surprised that Disney heeded our community's charge and pulled Maui's skin suit from their catalog.
That was a win, but the critical canoe did not rest. Scholars, community members, and allies released essays and blog posts pointing the finger (and giving the finger) to Disney. I started to pull back my comments and just watch it all unfold. Even though I was aboard the critical canoe, I still planned to watch the film in November to dive deeper into my critical analysis and prove how Disney would definitely get it wrong.
My colleague built a relationship with folks from Disney over the past few months, educating them on Pacific Island cultures, values, and the issues we face on the continent. My colleague's mantra is "you can change more from the inside than you can from the outside." Through my colleague's relationship, an opportunity arose for us, along with other community members, to screen Moana before it was screened for the press. The Disney Animation theater was filled with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) grandparents, parents, a few children, community organizers, community leaders, clergy, artists, and professors. This was a perfect opportunity for me to see the film and critique it from frame to frame. As we watched the film from beginning to end, I realized I WAS WRONG!
Moana is a great film! I teared up so many times because what was happening on-screen resonated with me on so many levels; the characters; their mannerisms; their look; the representation of our different NHPI cultures; the humor; the symbolism; the detail; the (proverbial) parables all spoke life into me and reminded me of my family and our people. The people on the screen look like us, they are us! I've imagined what it must of been like for our intelligent seafaring ancestors who populated and sustained land and life on our islands for centuries before contact with Explorers and Missionaries -- and to see that brought to life, genuinely through animation, impacted me in ways I was not prepared to receive.
I wasn't feeling the depiction of Ma'ui because of how gargantuan (I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence) and stereotypical he looked, but I actually identified with him more than I thought. It was refreshing to see someone on the big screen that actually looks like me that is not a football player. The mana transmitted from the screen was so real to most, if not all of us, in that theater that after the film, many of us expressed our gratitude for representing us well and for getting it right.
I signed an NDA so I can't disclose anything about the plot or the special information we are privy to; All I can say is that I urge everyone who is on the critical canoe to give the film a chance and see it... better yet feel it... and then form your critique. Moana as a film, independent from the merchandise and profit Disney will collect, is a great film! And because of that, I actually am willing to purchase Moana merchandise. I do not plan on using Moana to teach the next generation about who we were, instead, use Moana to teach the next generation who we are; We are Moana; We are Oceania; We are Pasifika!
I'm not selling out nor do I feel my consciousness is compromised. I give credit where credit is due, and to me, all 800 people who worked on Moana deserve credit and recognition. Our NHPI people are included in that number; our people are a part of the animation/film crew. Disney's long history of getting it wrong has taken a turn for the better with Moana. It shows that they are aware of their reputation and are working to change it moving forward. We all should be given the chance to correct our wrongs and work towards a better future and Disney deserves that same chance!
I can't wait for you all to see it. Whether you like it or not, that's okay, as long as you give yourself (and Disney) the chance to see it. You might not be able to deny the Moana magic.
DannyBoy Naha-Ve'evalu is Program Coordinator at Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC). EPIC's mission is to promote social justice by fostering opportunities that empower Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities through culturally relevant advocacy, research, and development.