ByAllanah Faherty, writer at
Senior staff writer | Twitter: @allanahfaherty | Email: [email protected]
Allanah Faherty

With 's brand new film, hitting cinemas this week there will be many audiences worldwide who will be introduced to the wonderful world of the Pacific for the very first time.

A culture of navigators, innovators and orators, Pacific Islanders have a unique and interesting heritage, and hopefully the popularity of Moana will spread that knowledge. But if you're interesting in plunging into the warm waters of Moana's world before you head the cinemas, take a look below and get to know some of the lore and legend behind Disney's Moana.

The people of the Pacific

Moana's parents Tui and Sina and her Grandmother Tala [Walt Disney Animation]
Moana's parents Tui and Sina and her Grandmother Tala [Walt Disney Animation]

Pacific Islanders have a long and impressive heritage, and were pioneers in many ways. Using natural tools and materials, as well as knowledge passed down through speech and song, Pacific Islanders navigated the oceans on various types of canoes with no maps, instead using the stars and observing the ocean to find their way.

Navigating the pacific in Moana [Walt Disney Animation]
Navigating the pacific in Moana [Walt Disney Animation]

In Polynesian mythology (Polynesia comprises of an area of the Pacific which includes New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoan, Tonga and the Cook Islands among many others), a place called Hawaiki is the original home of all Polynesian people before they ended up on the various islands all over the pacific. When people die, tradition says that the spirit of the dead returns to Hawaiki once more.

Traditionally Pacific Islanders lived in tribal groups, with each group having a chief — in the case of Moana the chief of her village is her father, Tui. Though these days Pacific Islanders don't tend to live within tribal groups, if you visit countries such as New Zealand and meet a person of Maori descent, they'll likely be able to tell you which tribe (or tribes) they belong to through their ancestry.

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Demigod Maui

Maui with tattoos depicting his many feats [Walt Disney Animation]
Maui with tattoos depicting his many feats [Walt Disney Animation]

As you'll know by now, Maui is the comedic demigod who helps Moana on her mission. While he'll undoubtedly be referred to by some as a sidekick, in reality this couldn't be further from the truth.

Maui is a huge part of Polynesian folklore, and is included in legends from Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga. Maui is a famous trickster, though in addition to being mischievous he's also responsible for many things, including the long hours of daylight, the introduction of fire to Earth and even the Pacific Islands themselves. Maui is pretty much as close as Polynesia has to its own superhero, and when you're armed with the magical hook made out of the jawbone of your ancestor, why would you have any need for Mjolnir?

Read more on Maui over here: Everything You Need to Know About Maui, Disney's Amazing New Hero!

The ocean and nature

Moana and the ocean [Walt Disney Animation]
Moana and the ocean [Walt Disney Animation]

if you've noticed anything about the Moana trailers and previews, you'll be aware of the enormous role the ocean is going to play in the film. In fact, the ocean is such an important part of Pacific culture that the filmmakers decided to make the ocean an actual character! In Pacific culture the ocean is literally the life blood of a community, providing food and acting as the highways for navigators exploring new lands.

The village doing traditional weaving [Walt Disney Animation]
The village doing traditional weaving [Walt Disney Animation]

Nature itself is a huge part of Pacific island life, with plant fibers being used to weave or to make cloth from, and trees being felled to create the canoes, carvings and structures. Pacific Islander cultures often wear clothing with bright colors with dyes taken from taken plants, and patterns replicating those seen in nature.

Song and speech

Like many Disney films, Moana is a musical and it might just be the best fit for a musical that the studio has ever made. As I mentioned earlier, the people of the Pacific pass on their traditions and knowledge orally, and much of this was done in song. Songs for harvest, for mourning, for ancestors and for laying down challenges, Polynesian cultures used song for almost every occasion and often it was also accompanied by dance.

Storytelling is also a huge part of Pacific culture, with myths and legends being used to explain the origins of rituals, beliefs and phenomenons. Figures like Maui often show up in myths, along with a number of gods, similar to those that appear in Greek and Roman mythology. In the film, Moana's grandmother, Tala is a perfect example of a village elder who knows many great legends and stories.


And finally, you may have noticed that many of the characters, both male and female, were adorned with beautiful tattoos. This is because Pacific cultures were some of the first in the world to practice tattooing, and in fact the word 'tattoo' comes from the Polynesian word 'tatau,' meaning 'to write'.

While tattoos in western culture may primarily be for body decoration, in Polynesia it's something of a great honor. In Samoa men receive pe'a tattoos, while women get 'malu,' which stretch from their waist to knees. In Maori tradition men can have their faces tattooed with a moko, where as the women have their chin tattooed, called the moko kauae. Each tattoo tells the story of the wearer's ancestry and story, and is a sacred art form worthy of deep respect.

Maui's tattoos are a record of his impressive feats [Walt Disney Animation]
Maui's tattoos are a record of his impressive feats [Walt Disney Animation]

While it might be easy for our own views on tattoos to cloud what we think of the traditional tattoos that adorn the character of Moana, it's worth remembering that these people are literally wearing their culture out and proud on their skin for all to see, talk about respecting your ancestors!

Moana is out in cinemas now!


Will you be watching Moana?


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