Pacific Postcards

Disney's Depiction of the Pacific Islands: Exploration, Independence, and Pride (Daniel Han)

Section 1: Introduction

In 2016, Disney produced Moana, an animated feature musical film that eventually became the 15th highest-grossing Disney animated movie by grossing 637 million dollars during its release. While it is evident that the film was widely accepted by the common viewers, a cultural analysis on the accuracy of the depiction of the Polynesian lifestyle is crucial to creating a more comprehensive and holistic perspective on the impact the film made across the world. Film, a textual and visual medium of communication, has the potential to become misleading in portraying an accurate history. This paper will discuss the first musical number of the film “Where You Are” through the lenses of textual and visual analysis, comparing and contrasting the filmmakers’ choices in lyrics and filmic elements with scholarly works from E. Hau’ofa and David A. Chang.

Section 2: Background

The musical number takes place at the island of Motunui, a fictional island created by the filmmakers for the story. It is revealed earlier in the film that the island is one of many around the area, conveying a similar set of geography with Polynesia. Throughout the number, several members of Motunui appear and express themselves in regards to their opinions on the island. Chief Tui, the chief of Motunui and father of Moana, serves as the representation of the island’s traditional values. Moana, the chief’s daughter and thus the future chief of the island, becomes a representation of youth and the non-traditional native islander’s perspective. Sina is the mother of Moana and wife of Chief Tui, placing her in the highest rank of families in the island. Gramma Tala is the grandmother of Moana, mother of Chief Tui, and the representation of the ancient history of the native islander’s perspectives. Lastly, the villagers are the workers and members of the tribe who represent the daily lives of the common people in the island.

To give context behind the musical number, in the previous scene, Moana is brought back into the island by Chief Tui after being caught playing by herself in the ocean. With a short set of dialogue, the film establishes Moana’s desire for the ocean and Chief Tui’s perspective on the ocean as dangerous and an entity to avoid.

Section 3: Lyrics

The musical number begins with Chief Tui’s verse “The village of Motunui is all you need” as he begins to show young Moana around the island. This line implies a sense of independence, specifically the ability to be independent from outside nations and tribes in resources. Hau’ofa, in discussing the economical lifestyle the native islands had, writes that “the world of Oceania is neither tiny nor deficient in resources” (Hau’ofa 156) due to their traditional sources of material wealth. Chief Tui’s claim, and Disney’s claim by proxy, on the island’s resourcefulness appears to be an accurate representation, especially when the song continues to emphasize the various types of materials the islanders have access to like the taro root, baskets, fisherman, coconut, and more. The idea that Motunui is able to be resourcefully independent, given the historical perspective on Pacific islands, breaks the common conception of the “small islands”. Hau’ofa, in explaining his motivation to study the history of Oceania, defines the prevailing analysis as portraying the islands as “too small, too poorly endowed with resources, and too isolated from the centers of economic growth [...] to be able to rise above their present condition of dependence” (Hau’ofa 150). This perspective on Oceania, and thus Polynesia, is most familiar to the common people for two reasons. First, like the majority of historical studies, most studies of the islands that have been published and presented across the world are from the perspective of Europeans. Not only was European power a dominant force throughout history in politics and economics, but the lingua franca of the world has been Latin and English, a set of western languages, while most accounts of Pacific islanders’ history are oral and in different languages. The accessibility of the European perspective trumped. Second, most people correlate land size with resourcefulness and power, as seen with the United States’ and China’s land and wealth. However, putting pre-existing biases and perspectives aside, a closer analysis of the islands show that their location in the tropics as well as the natives' terraqueous lifestyle provided opportunities for resources both in land and ocean. Disney is able to successfully break away from the western perspective and adhere to the portrayal of the Polyneasean culture from the natives’ perspective.

The same verse also suggests Chief Tui’s negative attitude towards outward expansion. The phrase “all you need” implies the uselessness of the outside world, limiting Moana from exploring the ocean. As the chief and leader of the island, this protective and conservative mindset makes sense as he needs to be of his tribe. However, this perspective is inaccurate to the realistic depiction of the native islanders’ nature of exploration. Despite her father’s limitations, Moana, later in the song, sings “I wanna see” as she mindlessly drifts to the coast. This sense of longing for exploration of the sea is a truer representation as Chang presents the Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) as “the active and deliberate agents of exploration… [who] ambitiously and confidently pursued the knowledge of the outside world” (Chang 27). Chang further explains that the idea of outward exploration was “embedded in the sacred stories that explain the creation and working of the world” (Chang 2). Disney appears to be inaccurate of their portrayal of the Polynesean culture by this point of the film; however, when it is revealed later that Chief Tui’s best friend died from a boating accident and that the people of Motunui were voyagers in the past, the filmmaker’s decision to intentionally veer away from accuracy in order to develop the characters and the plot becomes justified. As if they are pointing out the irony in their depiction, the addition of the lines “Who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need” sung by old villagers plays as a humorous joke on the Chief’s negative attitude on exploration, suggesting that the filmmakers made this portrayal intentional.

Further on in the musical number, Chief Tui delivers the lines “Our people will need a chief/And there you are” as he prepares Moana for a ceremony. Chief Tui’s addressing of his daughter as the future leader of Motunui suggests a hierarchical system that allows both man and woman to serve the role of the chief. The possibility of both sex being in a position of power is supported by Chang’s study of the islanders’ politics. Chang describes, “in its formal structure, Hwaiian society was a hierarchy with the moi or alii aimoku at the apex” (Chang 31). Alii aimoku refers to the sovereign king or queen of one of the Hawaiian islands, thus suggesting a history of both men and women in the chief role. While Disney has been creating films that orient around leading female characters, the fact that Moana would rule Motunui is historically accurate.

A fruit that is well known across the world to be the symbol of Hawaii and the tropical islands, the coconut and its various uses is repeated throughout the song by the villagers in the lyrics. Here, Disney’s depiction of the fruit extends beyond the usages as sustenance and clothing as the villagers sing “we make our nets from the fibers/we use the leaves to build fires”. While the repetition of the fruit throughout the song can be seen as simply for the sake of rhyming and the song structure, Chang’s analysis on the significance of the fruit provides insight to how much of the islander’s lifestyles revolved around the coconut. He writes that the “coconut tree was invaluable to Kanaka for fruit that provided food and oil, husks that gave coir for twine, and trunks for building and making drums” (Chang 18), highlighting the wide spectrum of way the fruit contributed to the native’s survival. The filmmakers’ repeating mentions of the coconut is in alignment with the importance of the fruit.

Finally, the song shifts its focus to Gramma Tala as she teaches Moana to dance like her while singing “I like to dance with the water/the undertow and the waves”. In terms of characterization, she is depicted as the “crazy old lady” by the town, but as her past knowledge of the ancestors and the ocean are revealed later, she becomes the representation of how involved the ocean was in the native islander’s daily lifestyle. In explaining the lifestyle of the ancient native islanders , Hau’ofa describes that the “people raised in this environment were at home with the sea. They played in it as soon as they could walk steadily, they worked in it, they fought on it” (Hau’ofa 153). The ocean wasn’t just a body of water with a surplus of resources for the natives; it was a part of the daily activities like leisure and taking care of children, both eventually creating a terraqueous culture among the islanders. Gramma, who represents the historical perspective, is in line with the ancestors of the islands with her familiar and positive attitude on the ocean.

She also seems to be in clear support of exploration, specifically Moana’s desire for the ocean in the verse “And if the voice starts to whisper/to follow the farthest star/Moana, that voice inside is who you are” suggesting that it is her true nature to explore. The filmmakers’ decision on making Gramma be the source of inspiration perhaps is based on the fact that the “exploration of the world is the inheritance of Kanaka Maoli because their ancestors settled the pae aina Hawai’i (the Hawaiian archipelago) in the culmination of extraordinary history of seeking” (Chang 4). According to Chang, the idea of exploration among the ancestors is rooted in the reason for the existence of the tribes. This is in exact parallel with Moana’s situation where she, after encouragement by an elder, needs to explore the ocean for the sake of her island’s health.

Section 4: Visual

In the wide array of studies under cinematography, the shot-composition and color are the most notable in the musical number. During the majority of the song, the visuals maintain the wide angle shots, establishing various and different environments in the island. Images of the village and its huts, the coastline, dense forests, enormous mountains, and more geographical features create the sense of a vast space. This is in line with Hau’ofa’s interpretation of the native perspective on their island as he claims the “peoples of Oceania [...] did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. [...] They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions” (Hau’ofa 152). The natives considered the vast ocean to be part of their land, and thus Disney establishing the wide geography of the natives instead creating a limiting image of the islands being small, one often drawn by European and outside histories, was an accurate depiction of the native perspective.

Additionally, the film chooses to fill most of the images with saturated greens and blues whenever the larger landscape of the island is on display. By utilizing a color palette that is defined and bright, the filmmakers can imply to the viewers subconsciously that the island of Motunui is a healthy environment. This, again, is in support of Hau’ofa’s description of the islands as being resourcefully abundant.

With the directing of the scene, the filmmakers’ decisions on the actions of the characters as well as the costume design add to their depiction of the native lifestyle. When the song goes on to discuss the coconut, the villagers as well as Sina and Chief Tui are seen making baskets and collecting the fruit. This is a slight deviation from Chang’s interpretation on political roles as he suggests that the “ma ka aina(workers) [...] cultivated the extensive crops [...] built and tended [...] fed the society and clothed it and rendered the various forms of tribute that flowed up the hierarchy (Chang 31). While the song had to be sung by main characters like Sina and Chief Tui, the fact that the two are in the highest position of power, it is unlikely that they would participate in the daily routines of the working ma ka aina.

With regards to the costume, Moana, Chief Tui, and Sina are in more vibrant and decorative clothing than those of other islanders during a ceremony. The clothing appears to have materials like feathers and jewels on the headwears and outerwears. This way of dressing is in parallel with Chang’s research on Hawaiian attire, as he suggests the “ahu’ula and mahiole [were] … worn for effecto on special occasions only. These precious garments featured motifs made of tens of thousands of tiny red, yellow, green, and black feathers” (Chagn 49). While the physical appearance of the ahu’ula and mahiole resemble the look of a cape and not the clothing depicted in the film, the color palette as well as the materials used in the costume are accurate.

Section 5: Conclusion

Disney, based in Burbank, California, is an American company that produced the film. The film’s main creative roles were filled by whtie filmmakers and animators. Continuing the trend of Eurocentric history, the film could have possibly been told in the common perspective with the islands being of insignificant size and resources and isolation. However, the film successfully maintains an accurate representation of Polynesean culture through  the lenses of the natives while gaining popularity in the mainstream media. Moana is filmic evidence on how the western European history is not the sole history in existence and is a testament to the depth and interest the world can have on the Pacific.


Works Cited

Chang, David A. The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Hau'ofa, Epeli. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 6, no. 1, 1994, pp. 148–161. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.

Moana. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2016.

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