Movies & Television

How Disney Made Moana Culturally Authentic

As rumours are circulating of a possible Moana 2 being developed by Disney – although nothing has been announced or confirmed – we thought it might be interesting to have a look at how culturally authentic Moana really is.

Where is Moana from?

Moana is from Motunui, but there is no such place! Motunui means “big island” and “Moana” translates to “a large body of water or ocean”.

So, it’s a big island in the middle of the ocean, but where? Hawaii? New Zealand? Not really… Motunui is a fictional Polynesian island with strong Hawaiian, Samoan, New Zealand and Maori tribal influences.

Is Moana based on true Maori culture?

The facts:

1. Moana is based on the Polynesian legend of Maui.

The Maori myths are well known to the inhabitants of Talago Bay, New Zealand. So Maui is not a Disney creation, but how true is Disney’s portrayal of Maui?

Interestingly, in the film, Maui is portrayed as an orphan – but this doesn’t match up with Maori lore, which tells the tale a little differently. Maui is one of four brothers and father to a trickster step-son. An interesting difference, but maybe not right for this Disney fairy tale.

Disney also seems to have changed the appearance of Maui. Most Maori mythological accounts portray Maui as a slim adolescent. Disney on the other hand, show Maui as a super-powerful and larger than life Demi-God. Rightly or wrongly, Disney’s approach works, as we all remember Maui’s antics.

2. Moana highlights the tradition of rule through lineage. Similar to a monarchy, the chief of the tribe inherits his title. 

Disney have done their research. The Maori by-law of inheritance – mana or authority – clearly states that if there is no clear line of succession, a woman can rule instead of a man. Spot on!

So far, so good. Now, set in Polynesia, how genuine are the characters’ Polynesian voice over accents?

Maui, the not-so-dashing hero of Moana, is voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.  Although at first glance an all-American actor, he was actually cast due to his Samoan ancestry! Having also lived in Samoa, Hawaii and New Zealand he was an ideal choice to make our Polynesian hero both authentic (a genuine, albeit subtle ‘Motunian’ accent) and appealing to an American audience. Besides, we can’t imagine any other voice over artist performing the Haka and sounding like they mean it.

Moana herself is voiced beautifully by native-born Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho.  So good in fact, it has actually led to a successful voiceover career for Auli’i.

Perhaps the strongest influence on Moana’s destiny was ’Gramma Tala’ who was famously voiced by Rachel House, of Maori descent. And did you know that Moana’s mother, was voiced by born and bred Hawaiian – Nicole Scherzinger? A great singer and surprisingly perfect choice of voiceover artist!

And so to the most memorable Moana character – the flamboyant crab Tamatoa – who boasts a perfect New Zealand voiceover, provided by actor Jermaine Clement.

We’re becoming surprisingly convinced by Moana’s cultural accuracy!

Our final commendation for Disney’s Moana was how the cultural sensitivity with which they treated the dubbing of the feature film for the Polynesian markets in which it was set.

For Hawaiian, Auli’i Cravalho wonderfully voices herself, to provide a true and authentic Moana. For Maori, Rachel House, Jermaine Clement, Temuera Morrison (chief), Oscar Kightley (fisherman) all reprised their roles!

Despite the small audiences of these target markets, Disney was able to redub Moana using many of the original (English-speaking) cast members and add an extra layer of authenticity.

We’ve come a long way from the “Notting-ham” of the Americanised Robin Hood Prince of Thieves or Dick Van Dyke’s fake cockney accent in the original Mary Poppins! Hats off to Disney’s approach to both casting and dubbing Moana in a culturally and linguistically sensitive way.

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