I have a very strong relationship to the Disney brand in my life. It's something I've been watching critically for as long as I can remember. That means when a new Princess movie comes out, I'm on top of it.
Princess and the Frog was surrounded by ad after ad of immature humor, but when I saw it in theatres my heart was full. So then I had hope for Tangled, and Frozen's international trailer was exciting. So when Disney announced Moana, I worried. There were too many hits in a row. This was going to have to be a flop. Moana was everything I could want from the newest Disney movie. Great music, but more importantly, putting their universal hero myth into an accurate culture.
Disney doesn't have any problems with representing European cultures. From matching time period- see Rapunzel's contrast to Mother Gothel- to occasionally matching local cultures- see Kristoff's design based on the Saami people. But in general, there is a lot of out cry when they go to say the Middle East with Jasmine or Colonial America with Pocahontas. The one time they ventured into Africa for a setting turned out to be a retelling of Hamlet. So Disney had some work to do to make me believe this was going to reflect Islander culture. I'm not the biggest expert, but my anthropology studies taught me a lot about different cultures. I was in awe of how many small things were included that made this movie a great representation of non-European culture!
One of the things I loved about this movie is that while there were some grass skirts, they weren't just stereo-typical. Moana's skirt included brown leaves with fabric around it. The materials were things that would be found on the island. The beading on her shirt is made of small shells. The fabric is mostly shades of tan which would come from the local plants such as palm leaves or coconut fibers being sewn together. Where there is color, there are reds. The red would have come from berries. Even her locket is made out of a clam shell.
In Western culture, we express a lot about ourselves through fashion, however a lot of cultures around the world use tattoos in similar ways. From Grandma Tala's ray to Maui's personal stories, they portray the tattoos not just as random art but as significant parts of the culture's self-expression. Samoan warriors had specific geometric designs given in religious ceremonies. Disney brought in a Samoan artist to design Maui's tattoos to make sure they were designed in a respectful way. They stayed true to the culture and used that to develop the characters.
Speaking of tattoos, not a lot of people realize Grandma Tala's tattoo had a double meaning. First it represented that she had a connection to the water, just like Moana. But then it connected to a common cultural belief. From Hawaii to New Zealand, Polynesian cultures all have meanings for the ray. The most common significance is that the Ray is a symbol of wisdom from spiritual guardians. The grandma acted as a constant guide to Moana both in life and death. It would have been easy to use another animal such as a sea turtle. The turtle is a symbol of life for many cultures, which wouldn't have had the parallel for the Grandma's character.
Twice in the film, Maui demonstrates haka, a war dance dance of the Maori people. This dance has become more visible since the film Whale Rider, but is also been very easy to use in a joking manor. The animators treat it as a very serious and important part of the plot. Maui performs haka to enter the Realm of Monsters and before his battle with Teka. Disney could have easily put in a moment of confusion from Moana or Hei Hei immediately after these images. But both times, they stuck to being respectful instead of going for a cheap laugh.
Sure, they pulled items out from different cultures instead of picking just one, but Disney is known for creating new worlds- look at Frozen's Arendelle. I could go on and on about all the small details, the cultural awareness casting, the use of pigs and chickens, the faithfulness to Maui's original myth. But instead, I'm going to end this by saying that it's great to see diversity on the screen. With fantastic music and talent, this is a must see for everyone this holiday season and for anyone looking for a little more diversity in their film life.