SocietyJanuary 3, 2017

Summer reissue: Yes, ‘Moana’ is Disneyfied and corporate, but it’s still a great thing for Pacific peoples


Community worker Ngaiterangi Smallman argues that the Moana movie is an opportunity Pacific communities should be grasping with both hands.

First published on September 28, 2016.

Two years ago I visited a Kohanga Reo (Māori-language preschool) in Tāmaki (Auckland) and enjoyed time with the mokopuna and teachers. The whanau had decorated the walls with cut outs of hukarere – snowflakes – and in the corner was a beautiful structure made of cardboard, blue satin and white lace in which the mokopuna were playing dress up as “Te Kuini-Hukarere Elsa”, the Snow Queen from the Disney movie Frozen. It was lovely to interact with the mokopuna as they played. While it may have come fully processed in a Disneyfied corporate package, Frozen had created a context for the mokopuna to learn about snow and reindeer, Northern European culture and the Snow Queen herself. The imaginations of our mokopuna were inspired – they were dressing up, playing with Frozen toys and exploring new ideas. It was marvellous, intuitive and creative, and it made me very sad.

These were Pacific children in the worlds largest Polynesian city learning about yet another European ancestor and creating memories centered in traditions of the northern winter. I commented to one of the kaiako “wouldn’t it be awesome if our mokopuna could see themselves in a movie that celebrated our own cultural heroes like Māui”.

I wanted a big, bright, accessible, child friendly celebration of our own Pacific histories, a blockbuster movie that focused attention on the Pacific as vibrant living cultures in the modern world. The kind of production that would make our ancestor Māui a superhero for the whole world to embrace, an icon to inspire the imaginations of our young people as a symbol of adoration and respect, a role model to follow as they faced the modern world.


When Disney announced they were making Moana I was excited but cautious. Past efforts have not been perfect but with the input of the Oceanic Story Trust – and the talents of Taika Waititi and lead actors Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne ‘Rocky Maivia’ Johnson – it seems the Disney team has crafted a story that is respectful but contemporary, that draws on our Pacific heritage to fashion a new story, a new song that follows our tradition of recalling our ancestors as exemplars to guide our paths today. The movie isn’t out yet but I’m confident they have achieved my vision in a way that is certainly no less authentic than the story in The Dead Lands, Romeo and Tusi or Shakespeare’s Toroihi Rāua ko Kāhira (the Māori Troilus and Cressida).

But of course Māui is a big deal in Polynesia. Across the many islands Māui is a founding ancestor in our genealogies and remains the most prominent, widespread and popular of Polynesian heroes. Thus it is no surprise that academics, politicians and bloggers have raised justifiable concerns about the Disneyfication of culture, how Māui has been portrayed and how we as Pacific Peoples are represented in the global community. Each of us as descendants of Māui stakes a spiritual claim to our tupuna, but that is also why criticism of the Oceanic Story Trust is arrogant, as each of the Trust’s Pacific Island members also stakes the same claim to answer the question “Do you know who Māui is?”

It is natural for people to see their heroic ancestors in the best possible light – strong and beautiful, and encompassing the best of modern ideals. But I do wonder if those perceptions reveal more about modern biases than they do about our common ancestor. The picture of Māui as a gym-sculpted Adonis with well-defined pecs and abs is a Western Romantic ideal at odds with those of our ancestors. Polynesian tradition favoured large, robust builds as a sign of health and status.

Moreover Māui was a shape changer, which makes the issue of appearance somewhat null and void. In some traditions Māui is divine, in others just a man; some depictions present him as a small in stature and yet others as a giant. Premature, malformed and unborn, he was set adrift to be carried away by Tangaroa, but by extraordinary fortune he was restored by the care of his ancestor and eventually returned back to the world as a ‘demi-god’, someone who transcends the mundane world, challenges the norm and becomes extraordinary.

Yet Māui was not a great chief nor even a successful fisherman. He was the youngest born and there are stories that speak of Māui as arrogant, another that refer to Māui being club footed and even one that states that he was ugly. But in all stories Māui is always an explorer, clever and innovative, a risk taker who is willing to bend the rules.

There are sacred chants and deeper traditions of Māui in our oral record but it must also be acknowledged that Māui is so well known in the Pacific and his tales so widespread because he was the people’s hero. His stories were told around the fireside, not only to edify the chiefs but also to entertain the masses. He was part of the common people, both adults and children.

Books, plays and songs have retold the story of Māui again and again, so it’s little wonder that when Disney turned to the Pacific for its newest princess Māui loomed large. I think Māui should be at the forefront of engaging with this bright new world of digital technology and animated tatau. A new medium of creativity and expression adopted and integrated into our cultures – the same way our ancestors adopted the written word and new tools in the past.

That may be where the issue of the skin suit and Disney’s merchandising come in. Many of those talking about Māui are people who never knew of him before. There are people in the Philippines, in Indonesia and in Madagascar who are excited about the movie and investigating our shared history of voyaging and Austronesian heritage. Reviewers in America and Europe are attempting to understand the context of Pacific Island culture and the roles of Moana, Māui and waka within the Pacific dynamic. Dolls have been produced, games will follow and of course there is the chance for children to dress up as their newest superhero in their very own Māui Skin suit.

Sure the suit was a bit ugly but quite frankly I’d be more offended by the idea of transferable sticker tattoos which people could paste on their own skins. A suit allows a designer to control the depiction of Māui and the tatau that adorns the onesie, thus limiting the chances of messing up. The suit also allows children of all cultures to share in the heroic nature of Māui in a way that is kind and generous, the same way that you and I might dress up as Santa Claus or Superman or how tourist are invited up on stage to learn poi or dance a hura in hotels across the Pacific.

That’s why I don’t mind the ugly suit and fully intend to get myself a light-up fish hook and even a Moana doll. Kids playing dress up is surely okay and certainly better than those sticker tattoos that we can buy from any bargain store or, even worse, someone scribbling random patterns on themselves and calling it Māui-inspired.

Our mokopuna are constantly surrounded by Western heroes – the Snow Queen, Thor, even Santa Claus are all European ancestors and ‘gods’ who bring with them the histories and cultures of Europe. Let’s be clear: the Snow Queen is as much a demi-god as Māui. Made of snow and given life by the Frost Father, she comes from Slavic legend and is considered the helper of the Slavic versions of Father Christmas. In some parts of Russia people still follow the tradition of drowning a straw figure in the river at New Years to dispel the winter cold. So in dressing up like Elsa the Snow Queen, were our mokopuna guilty of appropriating Slavic culture? Was the imaginative play and learning that was occurring amongst our mokopuna an insult to Slavs?

The cultures of the Pacific are vibrant, dynamic modern cultures that are part of the global community but we are less than 0.2% of the world population. Our story is as important as any other and if we can utilise the resources of Disney to showcase our story then surely we should be taking that opportunity. Of course there are issues of corporate imperialism and power imbalances but the Oceanic Story Trust has given us a pathway to leverage off the movie and focus attention on ‘Our Place’ in the world.

Disney’s Moana has the resources to reach a global audience to highlight our Pacific Island issues – like our Island homes sinking due to climate change, the struggles of small state development, and even cultural identity and representation in the 21st century. If the movie does well we will see more of Moana and that means opportunities for Pacific people to tell Pacific stories to the world, and opportunities for our young people to master the modern technologies of digital animation and merchandise marketing. We can follow the path of Māui, overcome the challenges of the world and become extraordinary.

And when our children play, they will play as the children of Māui.

Kia ora, Ngaiterangi Smallman is from Turangi and works with marae and community to link cultural knowledge and development.

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