Of the many films that premiered in the last few months, only one has the capability to reel in audiences of all ages. Disney has outdone itself with “Moana,” the endearing story of a Polynesian island chief’s daughter who goes on a life-changing quest of self-discovery.
The message this movie delivers is more than enough to call it a feminist flick. Moana (voiced by American actress Auli’i Cravalho) is clearly part of Disney’s effort not only to represent more Princesses of Color in their stories, but also to represent women and girls whose lives aren’t directed solely by their romantic relationships with men.
From the beginning of the movie, Moana demonstrates herself as a community-oriented natural leader. Although she spends much of the film grappling with several internal struggles, not one of them has anything to do with a romantic pursuit. Instead, Moana’s life is characterized by the duality of her two passions: family and exploring the sea. This internal conflict only resolves itself when she goes on a journey to restore the heart of Tafiti, the central island in her part of the world, with Maui, a demigod who stole Tafiti’s heart. (Maui is voiced by legendary wrestler and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.)
Praise for this movie also stems from its well-crafted and engaging soundtrack, written by acclaimed Broadway actor, composer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. From the slow, traditional introductory music to Dwayne Johnson’s rapping debut in “You’re Welcome,” Miranda proves that his composing prowess is not limited to the stage. Miranda described the process of getting into writing the soundtrack for “Moana” in an interview with Billboard Magazine.
“We were in this weird studio on the other side of the world [attending a music festival in New Zealand], and most of the initial writing for the song ‘We Know the Way’ happened,” Miranda said. “It was like, ‘Let’s honor this part of the world we just spent two days immersed in.’”
The amount of time and creativity that went into this soundtrack is very evident. Every song includes hints of popular music smoothly mixed in with Polynesian music.
“We Know the Way” is a perfect example of this artistic blend. The song includes lyrics in both English and
Tokelauan, the native language of the New Zealand territory Tokelau. To complete the song, Miranda even collaborated with a native Tokelauan songwriter, Opetaia Foa’i. This song appears in the scene when Moana discovers her village’s ancient past — they were once explorers who travelled from island to island across the sea. Miranda’s translation of the Tokelauan lyrics goes as such:
We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze
At night, we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are
The entire soundtrack for “Moana” can be found on Spotify, for those who may be interested.
“Moana” also has had a huge impact on the representation of native Pacific islanders in the media. The depictions of Polynesian people in the film have been both praised and criticized. While the mythology and traditions exemplified in the movie are mostly accurate, many native Polynesians have expressed concern with the way their culture is being shown to the world. For example, the character Maui has been criticized for not only being inaccurate to the original legend, but also for being an offensive depiction of Polynesian people.
According to Smithsonian, Maui is traditionally depicted as “a lithe teenager on the verge of manhood” who is known for his heroic endeavors for the sake of humanity. But in “Moana,” Maui is a “huge buffoon” who “perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight.”
Disney movies like “Moana” have been condemned by the native peoples they’ve attempted to represent for many years, mostly for their romanticization of primitive people.
Although Disney made an effort to include native Polynesians in their advisory board, New Zealand educator Tina Ngata told Smithsonian a diverse advisory board was not enough.
“Having brown advisors doesn’t make it a brown story. It’s still very much a white person’s story,” Ngata said. Despite these criticisms, “Moana” has been an incredibly popular animated movie, earning $482.5 million at the box office in total. Disney may not have done a perfect job with this film, in more ways than one, but its popularity among children and adults alike speaks for itself.