Disney Animation’s upcoming film, Moana, was recently the center of controversy when a Halloween costume of the character Maui was perceived as cultural appropriation. Having recently visited Disney Animation to learn more about the film, I was sorry to hear that anything related to Moana had caused an upset. I know the degree of care and the attention to detail that went into the project and with that in mind, we take a look at how Disney is working to represent a culture that has been absent from mainstream media for too long.
“I didn’t know much about [the culture] until I started studying it when the film was in development,” explains Osnat Shurer, the film’s producer who recently moved from Pixar to Disney. “Discovering this incredible trove of beautiful stories and people, not to mention the imagery; it’s just gorgeous. And the opportunity to bring different kinds of music together; I love world music. And when you put together something that feels more current with something that’s so deeply in the culture, it’s magic. It’s like The Lion King.”
Elton John, Tim Rice, Hans Zimmer and Lebo M. worked together to bring the rhythms of the Pride Lands to life in 1994 when The Lion King became a worldwide phenomenon. On Moana, singer and songwriter for Oceanic band Te Vaka, Opetaia Foa’i, brings authentic South Pacific melodies, instruments and language to the music. With songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a score by Mark Mancina, the music in Moana is sure to touch your soul the same way The Lion King did. Another Lion King connection is the main characters’ names. Simba was Swahili for “lion,” while Moana is Hawaiian for “Ocean.”
Across multiple research trips to islands such as Tahiti, Fiji, and Bora Bora, the story team created a Story Trust of artisans and laborers from the region. “The nice thing is we are in constant communication with the Moana Story Trust,” explains screenwriter Jared Bush. “We are constantly vetting them to get ideas, talking to them about improving the story, working with them. I think for all of us it’s easy to say ‘Here’s some things that you really can’t do,’ but it wasn’t that. It was more ‘Here’s some amazing stories that you guys can be inspired by’ and it made us want to put things on screen that had never been on screen before.”
“People were nervous because we’re representing something that’s so precious and fundamental to their existence,” production designer Ian Gooding said. “But I think a lot of them felt that, rather than fighting it, there was an opportunity to show people that their culture is really amazing. I think they embrace it as a way to get their story out there.”
What many people don’t realize is that Moana has been in development for a long time. Ian Gooding was working on the project over five years ago, but was taken off it to work on Wreck-It-Ralph while the project was retooled. “It was hugely changed. In the interim, the directors went on their first research trip so their preconceived notions of what that part of the world was like were shattered. They came back very changed by the experience and had so much respect for how amazing these people were 2,000 years ago to be able to do what they were doing.”
From a character design standpoint, we can also examine the look of the title character. During research trips, the artists paid close attention to physical characteristics that Pacific Islanders find beautiful and incorporated those into Moana. Costume designer Neysa Bové studied clothing material available on the islands to determine Mona’s wardrobe, including the materials, patterns and colors that would have been available. When she dons her royal costume, her headdress is covered in red parrot feathers, which were a form of currency thousands of years ago. Red was also the color of royalty in the Pacific Islands, which is why she is always in various shades of red.
I have no doubt that when Moana is released on November 23rd, it will be groundbreaking for a number of reasons. It brings an often overlooked culture into mainstream media in a way that’s never been done before. When you see it, I hope you are mindful of the care, the detail, and the respect for Oceanic culture that went into the creation of this future classic.