Disney’s “Moana” and the Hawaiian Culture

Moana is a Disney movie, widely released in December of 2016. It was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, with the screenplay from Jared Bush, and follows the journey of Moana, the daughter of a Polynesian village chief, in her attempt to save their island, the fictional island of Motunui, from dying.

Moana is in search of Te Fiti to bring back her heart after it was stolen by Maui, a demigod, in Maui’s pursuit to have the power of creation. After her heart was stolen, Te Fiti transformed into a lava demon, Te Ka, cursing Montunui, resulting in the island’s gradual death. Moana sets sail to retrieve Te Fiti’s lost heart to regain the life and nourishment of their island.

This movie is inspired by Polynesian history, particularly of the Hawaiians, and draws so much aesthetics, mythology, symbolism, and culture from Hawaii and its people, with some details carried out factually and others portrayed exaggeratedly.

Take note that Polynesians is a group of ethnic peoples scattered across islands. One of the Polynesian groups arrived in what is now Hawaii and settled there. Eventually, this became the focal inspiration for the movie.

From Polynesians to Hawaiians

an island in Hawaii

To better understand the Polynesian-Hawaiian concept, a summarized historical account would state that there had been a “Long Pause” in Polynesian sailing ranging for 2,000 years.

During the Long Pause, Polynesians remained in their original lands. Scientists claimed that the Long Pause was caused by the lack of boating technology for them to sail and manage the disastrous wind and natural forces while on the sea.

The Long Pause was also depicted in the movie. This is an integral part of the Polynesian-Hawaiian concept since, after the Long Pause, they were able to sail again and with so much vigor this time.

Some of these Polynesian groups reached New Zealand, while some landed in Hawaii. The first to reach the Hawaiian Islands were those originating from the Marquesas Islands, around AD 300 to 600. The Tahitians arrived hundreds of years later and ended up settling in the majority of the Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaii is a magnificent country, and aside from its rich culture from whence Disney drew their inspiration for the movie, the state also has its historical significance.

Disney claimed that they had done extensive research for the movie to discover more about the culture, get things right and appropriate, and avoid any misrepresentations. It is time to put their research to the test.

The Hawaiian culture in Moana

native Hawaiians in their native attire

Maui. Maui is a real demigod in Polynesian folklore who helps mankind. He is depicted as a teenage boy in local mythology. However, the movie portrayed him as a muscular and naive man.

Many native Hawaiians consider this portrayal offensive to their culture and have remarked that they are careful not to expose their kids to this depiction to avoid tainting the sanctity of the demigod.

Hina. There is a reason you don’t know about Hina because she was not included in the movie. But she made it to this list because, in the local mythology, she is an essential complement to Maui and a goddess herself.

Hina is a Polynesian goddess responsible for the balance in the world. In the local Polynesian mythology, each god has a companion goddess to illustrate harmony in the world, and Hina was Maui’s companion goddess.

The coconuts. In the movie, Disney embossed the island with coconut husks and several other coconut references, which, for some natives, are exaggerated and a form of stereotypes among the Hawaiians by the American people.

Kakamora people. Many Hawaiians and Polynesian natives have stated the incorrect portrayal of the legendary Kakamora people in the movie. They were depicted as wild and untidy pirates, traveling the ocean when they are said to be short but statured mythical people originating from the Solomon Islands. They are quite similar to the Menehune dwarfs of Hawaii.

Wayfaring. The Hawaiians are essentially natural travelers since they were Polynesians who traversed the sea and settled in Hawaii and are now called Hawaiians. This is depicted in the movie, along with the historical Long Pause and their eventual return to voyaging.

The ocean. In Hawaii, they have the phrase, “Never turn your back on the ocean,” and Disney translated this by personifying the ocean as a living, breathing entity and making it a huge part of the movie’s plot.

The art of Hula. A scene in the movie shows Moana and her grandmother when the latter performs a hula, which is, beyond its performative aspect, a ritual of passing knowledge.

‘Aumakua or the Ancestor spirit. The ‘aumakua is a Hawaiian belief of their ancestors living in animal forms. This belief was carried and used in one of the movie’s most dramatic scenes, where her grandmother visited Moana to manifest stingrays.

Sustainable living. Hawaiians value sustainability, and they rightfully should because of their rich natural resources that boast both the provision of needs and magnificent beauty.

The movie manifests this in the way Moana’s father explains how a coconut tree is a very useful tree and that they do their part in their village to make sure that coconuts are sustainably maintained.

The rooster. Roosters are a constant on almost every island in the Pacific. Thus, the movie incorporated this in Hei Hei’s character, the chicken companion of Moana.