Staying True to Polynesian Culture: Behind the Scenes of MOANA


Staying True to Polynesian Culture:

Behind the Scenes of MOANA

By Ben Kayser, Managing Editor

Movieguide® had the opportunity to attend the World Press Junket for MOANA in Santa Monica, Calif. to hear from the cast and crew on what making this movie meant to them and the journey it took to get there.

MOANA is about a young girl on a Polynesian island 2000 years ago, who sets out to enlist the demigod Maui to help her save her people. Directed by the duo Ron Clements and John Musker who helmed Disney classics such as THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN and HERCULES, the two men dove head first into researching Polynesian culture.

“This movie started five years ago, which is not that unusual for an animated film,” Ron said. “[John] wanted to do a movie based on the world of the Pacific Islands and the mythology. We took a trip to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti, which was the basis of the movie, in terms of the connection to navigation, to people’s connection to their ancestors, respect for nature. A lot of those ideas came from that first research trip. The movie is heavily inspired by that. The people we met have stayed involved with the movie throughout its production process to try to capture as much as we could of all the wondrous things we learned and the wonderful people we met.”

John Musker added, “We took a second trip to the Pacific with our musical team, Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and Opetaia Foa, and we already worked with both of them.”

On that second trip to the Pacific, Lin-Manuel Miranda impressed the locals with some of his dancing skills, even winning a competition. Miranda described the experience of working on the music for MOANA.

“I got the job the week before,” he said. “With my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand, where everyone was already there. The Pacific Music Festival is islands and choirs from all the different island in the Pacific. So, we sort of immersed ourselves in this world, and then Opetaia, Mark and I jumped into a studio and started banging on drums and started really trying to find the pulse of this thing in a way that honored the unique musical heritage and incredible rhythms that come out of this part of the world.”

Producer Osnat Shurer said:

“One of the great things that happened when we went on these research trips, is we met incredible people. People with knowledge in areas of the navigation, of master tattoo artists, weavers, archeologists as well, and they became what we loosely call the Oceanic Story Trust. We decided we wanted to make this known together. So we would keep checking in with our Trust. Of course, it’s a fictional story. It’s a story from the imaginations of all these incredible people. But we wanted it really to honor and respect the cultures that inspired the movie. So, we kept working together. Everything from every tattoo was checked with our master tattoo artist, the dances were choreographed by one of our consultants, and that’s something we had going throughout the making of the film. Life-long friendships have been formed.”

Actor Dwayne Johnson, who plays the demigod Maui, believes that Polynesians and all cultures will have something to take away from in MOANA.

“The Polynesian people will be incredibly proud of the movie,” he said. “Overall, I think what’s gonna touch upon all of us, regardless of where we’re it in the world, where we’re from, cultures, class, religion, is the voice. Our world today, so relevant in this moment, there’s so much noise that’s happening in our world, but the little voice you always gotta listen to, your gut or intuition, you can do things, you can go beyond boundaries, and you have to trust that gut.”

In an exclusive interview, one of the music composers, Opetaia Foa, discussed how he researched music from Oceanic Island cultures from 2000 years ago.

“It’s really weird” he said, “but years ago, I went and searched all the oldest people I could find, and I got them to tell me what their great grandparents told them. All the stories and chants they passed down to them. I managed to put them all together and found a common denominator in some of them.”

As described in Movieguide®’s review, MOANA has some problem areas, mostly in that much of the movie focuses on Polynesian paganism and mythology. A culture of polytheism, there’s a demigod as a major character, references to reincarnation and “mother earth.” Also, Moana even converses with her grandmother’s spirit at one point. Unlike KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, however, which was practically a sermon for paganism, MOANA is more of an homage to Polynesian culture. Regardless, the spiritism isn’t worth glorifying, and it’s why many missionaries risked their lives bringing the gospel to Polynesian cultures, some of which were cannibalistic. In turn, the Good News of Jesus Christ ended up impacting many islands in positive ways that still have effect today.

Read the full review of MOANA here.

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