Home » 7th Season: 2019-2020 » 2019-2020 v.10 » Moana: The Movie that Could Have Been

Moana: The Movie that Could Have Been

By Lina Zhang, V Form

Moana: The Movie that Could Have Been

As part of Disney’s revival era animations, Moana details the journey of its eponymous heroine to restore peace and prosperity to her island, a community loosely based upon Samoan culture but also drawn from Polynesian culture as a whole. As Moana is one of the first movies to be made about Polynesian cultures, many see it as representation and awareness for the community and dismiss instances of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation in it as mere unintentional accidents. However, it is important to recognize that while the film promotes the positive message of strong femininity in the character of Moana, it also reinforces the limited and stereotypical narrative that Western audiences have of Pacific Islander cultures. From the culturally-insensitive coconut people to Maui’s controversial body, Moana is the movie that could have done better but didn’t, failing its expectations of cultural representation and perpetuating Disney’s trend of cultural appropriation. 

Indeed, having movies about minority cultures that face regular oppression and neglect from the rest of the world can bring awareness to and appreciation for their experiences. Cultural appreciation, or the impartial appreciation and respect for all aspects of culture and its people, would have been a positive goal for Moana. However, as directors added multiple elements such as tattooing and navigation in an attempt to cover all Polynesian cultures, they created a smorgasbord of cultures that only selected “appealing” and “exciting” parts that may intrigue Western audiences. Contradictions that emerge in Moana’s storyline when placed in the context of Samoan narratives, such as the erasure of the goddess Hine and the exaggerated body of Maui, are ultimately resolved in favor of Western acceptance, raising the question of whether the movie was meant to represent the Polynesian culture or what Western people think of Polynesian culture (Herman 2016). In my notes, I wondered if the movie planned on addressing any aspects of colonization. Intentionally choosing non-alienating themes and creating a narrative largely consistent with our view of Polynesian cultures has enabled Disney to both profit off Moana’s exocity and maintain a semblance of representation. Assessing Moana from its production, the director and screenwriter’s identities as white Americans also influence the authenticity of the movie, as they inevitably bring their own cultural biases and ethnocentrism in the production of the film. The prevalence of Western themes and ideologies under a movie seemingly catered towards Polynesian cultures creates cultural appropriation, the biased portrayal and utilization of one culture for another’s benefit, instead of the desired cultural appreciation.

Disney’s instances of cultural appropriation are neither limited to Moana nor a thing of the past. When I heard that Disney was going to create a live-action remake of Mulan, I was intrigued. However, after watching the trailer and doing research on the director and cast members, I found that most, including the director, were white. Not only so, but the live-action was based on the original Disney movie made in 1998, which already deviates from the traditional story of Mulan through the addition of multiple scenes and especially Shan-Yu, the gratuitous love-interest for Mulan. My understanding and experience of having my own culture whitewashed and packaged into movies understandable by Western audiences helped me understand why Moana might be a pernicious movie for Samoan people. Just as the case with Mulan, white directors chose to keep some aspects of culture while altering or eradicating parts of others, creating an incomplete narrative. Though Moana’s nature as a children’s film should have heightened the importance of fairly representing Polynesian culture, creators of Moana chose to sell a “white person’s story” (Herman 2016), tarnishing its potential and reducing it to a film that only continues the cultural appropriation and single narratives of non-western cultures around the world. 

To Western audiences, Moana is just a funny, warming, and somewhat exotic story of a young girl sailing the seas to restore peace by magic. The existence of so many cultural layers that are either falsely portrayed or completely ignored, however, creates the issue of normalized cultural appropriation. While I am not a part of Samoan culture, the similar experience of seeing one’s cultural heritage morphed and reduced to inaccurate consumption for Western audiences allows me to understand why Samoans are justified in their anger and pushback against Moana just as I am angry at Mulan. As global citizens, we need to recognize the importance of honoring each culture as they are by enabling and empowering them to direct and control their narrative in the world. Instead of accepting Moana at its face value, we also need to examine the cultural messages that it is sending. Representation is important, but who is doing the representing? In Moana’s case, it was white people who ultimately chose to narrate the story, removing the level of authenticity and appreciation that the film could have embodied. 

Lina Zhang is a V form boarding student from Beijing, China, who now lives in Southborough, Massachusetts. In her free time, she enjoys baking, writing, and walking two hours for Starbucks.

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