This year's already been an amazing one for Disney Animation, with Zootopia bringing the studio one of the biggest hits of the year with critics and fans alike. But Zootopia might be the first hit in an animated double-header, because Moana's set to do more of the same this November.
The upcoming animated adventure pulls inspiration from Polynesian mythology and legends from Hawaii and the South Pacific islands to tell the story of Moana, a young girl tasked with completing an ancient ancestor's quest in order to save her home. And thankfully, Disney's animation team had a little help in bringing the title character's underrepresented culture to the big screen.
During a recent press event, the Moana team shed some more light on the animated feature leading up to its Thanksgiving release, and revealed how they worked with a group of experts known as the Oceanic Story Trust to bring some authenticity to the film.
Building A Team Of Culture Experts
Disney animators are known to do extensive research to bring their stories to life. They studied wild animals and visited Africa to prepare for The Lion King, traveled to China for Mulan and even took a trip to an ice hotel in Quebec to perfect the icy winter feel of Frozen. But for Moana, Disney went a step further by assembling the Oceanic Story Trust to help educate the creative team. The Story Trust has an eclectic range of members, and as Moana's Senior Creative Executive Jessica Julius said:
"They’re from many walks of life. They’re academics, archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians. But also tattoo masters and navigators and fishermen and elders, artists. As many people as we could we met and we were really lucky to learn from. They shared their knowledge with us and their stories with us. It was really an honor to meet and learn from them. And it really fundamentally changed our filmmakers."
It sounds like the team could almost be broken up into two sides — those who've really studied Polynesian and South Pacific culture and everyday folks connected to it. And the filmmakers took their thoughts into consideration when making big story decisions. As screenwriter Jared Bush recalled:
"Every draft of the script, every change would be sent to the Oceanic Story Trust to get their opinions. And it helped us sometimes that they’d say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that!’ Or they’d say, ‘I can see you guys trying to be safe. You don’t have to be that safe with this.’ So it was definitely this great conversation."
Based on Bush's comments, the Story Trust wasn't just a bunch of people Disney creators met on their research trips. They actually stayed in contact with each other, connecting cultural experts to the filmmaking process every step of the way.
Looking for more on Moana? Check these out:
- The Ocean Is Calling: 7 Things You Might Not Know About Disney's Moana
- Aloha, Maui! Here Are 6 Incredible Feats Achieved By The Demigod In Disney's Moana
- Get To Know The Cast And Characters Making A Splash In Moana
Does Disney Have A Responsibility To Honor South Pacific Culture?
Moana might be a fun animated adventure, but it's also one of the most high profile representations of traditional South Pacific culture and mythology we've seen in Hollywood. And people are eager to see if Disney will treat the culture with respect.
The animation powerhouse already came under fire when character designs for the demigod Maui, Moana's traveling companion, revealed that he'd be a large character. Some have argued his big body reinforces negative stereotypes that Polynesian people are obese and lazy, noting how Polynesian men in particular have repeatedly been portrayed as obese in movies and TV shows. While the controversy was pretty minor, it really showed how people are looking to Disney to fairly represent the culture its taken inspiration from.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker have a responsibility to honor the cultures that have inspired Moana while still offering the entertainment we expect from a Disney movie. The film's setting provides a particularly unique aesthetic, but simply adapting ancient stories and myths for modern audiences has the potential to effectively erase years of tradition. For many, Moana will be a definitive take on the kinds of stories Polynesian people have shared for years, and Disney needs to ensure it shows respect for those traditions with an authentic story.
Thankfully, Disney creators had the Oceanic Story Trust to turn to when it came to production research and story concerns. They could turn to both academic experts and people actually tied to the culture to see how they should handle Moana's source material.
The production's dedication to authentic, accurate representation shows beyond the Story Trust. The film's music will have some traditional style thanks to singer/songwriter Opetaia Foa'i of Oceanic music group Te Vaka, who's part of a three man team alongside Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Mancina. Moana herself will be brought to life by Auli'i Cravalho, a native Hawaiian, while Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Samoan heritage helped him land the role of Maui. In the end, it looks like Moana could be Disney's most culturally authentic film yet.
Moana sails into theaters on November 23. Are you ready to see Disney's take on Polynesian culture? Let us know in the comments below.