Achieving some of the highest public and professional ratings in the time since its release, Disney’s Moana aims to be a movie centred around exploration, discovery and art, set in Polynesia around two-thousand years ago. Chronicling the adventures of the titular character on her quest to restore nature and balance to her island, Moana (Auil’i Cravalho) and the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) traverse a dynamic and unique world which modern viewers may discover along with them.
The Polynesian way finders were a collection of communities who travelled from island to island across the sea, and may be considered some of the most prolific seafarers throughout history. Due to their widely-spread cultures and experiences, the race may have developed equal beliefs and traditions, carrying livestock, plants and families across the ocean upon canoes to amalgamate with the new islands they discovered. The decision by Disney to represent a distinctive and rich culture in a culture outside the traditional Western fairytale may provide an opportunity to create discussion surrounding cultural representation.
In order to represent the unique culture and experience of the Polynesian way finders, extensive research was needed by the production teams and directors. One method by which they aimed to represent the Polynesian culture in the best possible way was through close dialogue and discussion with modern actors, musicians and consultants from the Pacific Islands. To document this important journey, Walt Disney Animation Studios produced a video detailing the process.
Part of this included the development and design of characters in themselves and the understanding of relationships between them, for example, the character design of the sea. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements discussed how visiting the Pacific Islands and their inhabitants helped them to learn “how important the ocean is, and it’s where the idea came to make the ocean character in the movie.” By keeping a dialogue with natives and experts of Polynesian decent, Musker and Clements may have enabled a new opportunity for discussion through art and design.
This learning process led challenging and potentially unprecedented design and development elements, and the result may be a testament to the effort and commitment of the team, showing how working with natives in and out of the world of media may assist in the production of intelligent and beautiful design works.
Other important design elements which Disney may have taken into consideration during the production of Moana may have benefitted from this structure of guidance and teaching too, providing information on the lifestyle and traditions of the islanders; for example, the design of the kapa outfits and the tatau, the art of tattooing the men and women of tribes as a right of passage before adulthood. Whilst other incarnations of Maui may look different to Johnson’s demigod, it may also become apparent to viewers how care has been taken in representing the character in the movie through his design.
To reflect his boyish playfulness as the ‘trickster’ demigod, Maui seems to be strong with free, rumpled hair bouncing about his shoulders, a change which may reflect Disney’s desire to represent as much variety and individuality as it moves forwards with its legacy. In creating a movie with design so involved in the representation of an ancient, unique and vibrant culture, Disney may have pushed themselves to new standards of quality and accuracy in Moana. The movie seems to have taken all of the various elements of Polynesian life in centuries before, echoing to the lyrics sung by Moana of her home tribe; “everything is by design”.
How may representing different cultures in movies encourage discussion and exploration?