How did Disney get Moana right, and Maui wrong?

Yesterday, I was approached by a BBC editor to write a short piece on Disney’s upcoming movie, Moana, and the controversial costume that they recently released depicting Maui, a Polynesian demi-god and character in the animated film. BBC have released an edited version of my piece, which has been picked up by other news sites – some incorrectly quoting me as a Samoan storyteller. I don’t find it offensive to be called a Samoan, however I’m Fijian and Tongan, and as many of my fellow Pacific people would agree, there is a difference. I’m sharing this piece as I thought it was a great opportunity to weigh in on the issue and also continue to create meaningful conversations among both Pacific and non-Pacific people alike. 

As a Pacific person, I can’t tell you how excited I am, and how long I’ve been waiting to watch Disney’s new animated movie, Moana. Seeing faces that look like mine, telling a story that relates to me… I just don’t have the words. I haven’t felt this excited about a Disney film since I watched Simba return to Pride Rock in 1994, and the million other times I watched it until we ruined the tape in our VCR.

Other than the movie itself, I’m also excited about the conversations it’s sparked within the Pacific community, the wider global community and also the conversation that’s begun between the two. Some have been enlightening, others, cringe worthy, but overall it’s given a voice to many Pacific people who might’ve otherwise gone unheard when discussing issues about culture, people and place in the context of the Pacific and our stories.

It’s also raised important questions about cultural appropriation and misappropriation. Is Disney doing it right? Is there a way to celebrate Moana and Pacific culture, without offending Pacific people?

I’ve yet to watch the movie, but so far, it looks like Disney’s got it right in terms of the story it’s telling on behalf of Moana. They seem to have applied four important aspects of Pacific culture to their animated film: awareness, context, relationship and respect.

This week, Disney released a children’s costume for Maui, a character in the Moana film. I get it – Disney knows and appreciates that children across the world will fall in love with Maui, and like many other Disney characters, they’ll want nothing more than to look exactly like him. On paper, it seems like a pretty logical decision to create a costume that looks exactly like Maui. There isn’t much to work with in terms of clothes though, he only wears a grass skirt and a necklace made of shells. Hence the final product that Disney released – a body suit with brown skin, tattoos, Maui’s necklace, and a grass skirt. In reality, it’s offended many Pacific people. Here’s why.

The four principles I mentioned earlier were missed. I understand the reasoning behind the grass skirt and the necklace, but the brown skin is too far, and the tattoos, culturally misappropriated.

Tattoos are deeply meaningful to Pacific people. Like a fingerprint, it’s unique to each person. Our markings tell a personal story that we carry with us on our skin, everywhere we go – constantly reminding us of our values, our people, and our identity. It’s considered taboo, and extremely disrespectful in many Pacific cultures to wear the markings of a people or place that you are not spiritually or physically connected to. After the release of Moana, Maui may be a Disney character to some, but to many Pacific people, he is very real – a hero, ancestor, demi-God and a spiritual guide. Even for Pacific people who don’t believe in Maui, replicating a Polynesian tattoo and offering it to children for a price is belittling and trivializing an intimate aspect of Pacific people and culture.

Knowing this, Disney might’ve reconsidered their decision to include tattoos on Maui’s costume. That would’ve also eliminated the need for the brown skin body suit that many consider brown face. They also would’ve anticipated the backlash from Pacific people who interpret their decision as inappropriate and disrespectful at best – and at worst a way to make money off a particularly significant aspect of Pacific culture.

You don’t need to be a Pacific person to enjoy and respect Moana, Maui and Pacific culture. With Google at our fingertips, avoiding offense might be as simple as a bit of research, or asking a Pacific person questions about the four points I’ve mentioned. Many Pacific people welcome questions about Moana the movie, and Pacific culture in general. Taking initiative and starting these conversations creates trust, shows respect and ultimately, could be the start of a meaningful relationship between you and Pacific culture, and a Pacific person.

In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly waiting for the release of Moana, trusting that the creators, producers and directors have continued to apply these principles. If anything, I appreciate the opportunity it’s giving me, and many other Pacific people, to share our thoughts, our opinions, and our stories. After all, having these conversations on global scale is important, and it’s what me, and many Pacific people who have gone before me have been waiting for, for centuries.

Featured image is of Lusia Monolagi and her we ni qia on her back. Photo was taken from the Sunameke photoshoot with the Monolagi ladies. We’d like to thank Julia from Tep Tok Tatu for allowing us to link to their website and share their image. 

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