The story for Disney’s latest movie Moana is not ripped from the pages of a fairy tale book like many of its predecessors; it is inspired by the real, oral histories of the Pacific Islands. This presented a challenge: how do you make an authentic portrayal of a culture through a movie? The filmmakers of Moana went to dutiful and great lengths in order to uphold and celebrate the beauty of Polynesian culture. “Way-finding,” or ocean exploration, was an integral part of ancient Polynesians’ way of living, leading to the discovery of many Pacific islands.
Co-director John Musker says:
“Navigation – wayfinding – is such a big part of Pacific culture. Ancient Polynesians found their way across the seas, way-finding island to island without the use of modern instruments, using their knowledge of nature, the stars, the waves, and the currents.”
“Moana”, in many Polynesian languages, means “ocean,” a natural entity that plays a huge role in Disney’s latest movie. Moana’s father, the chief of their island village Motunui, prohibits any of his people, especially Moana, from sailing beyond the reef. Yet, Moana has always been inexplicably drawn to the ocean. When Moana discovers the truth about her village’s ancestry, she is inspired to set sail on her own voyage to save her island and her people.
Though wayfinding was such an important part of Polynesian culture, however, there were no traces of voyaging for about 1,000 years. There is not one authoritative explanation that explains the thousand-year-gap, so filmmakers were inspired to write their own through the heroine Moana. Musker says that Moana’s voyage marked the “rebirth of wayfinding” for her people. Indeed, the story of Moana does not take place in modern times. It is a story that plays out thousands of years in the past with classic, universal themes.
“The idea of a teenage girl who dreamed of becoming a navigator–considering the abilities of her ancestors–was so appealing,” says Musker. “What better way to illustrate her becoming empowered, finding her identity than a story about wayfinding?”
Directors Musker and Ron Clements and other filmmakers visited Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, and New Zealand to immerse themselves in the culture of the Pacific Islands and its people. On top of taking part in local traditions, they also met with prominent cultural advisors in the region.
In Fiji, they were joined by Jiujiua “Angel” Bera, a talking chief and expert seafarer, out on the sea. Bera taught them more about the Fijians’ relationship to the ocean.
“He told us that we must speak gently to the ocean,” says Clements. “The ocean is viewed as a living, breathing, powerful entity. There is immense respect and admiration for the ocean in this part of the world. We heard many times from the people we met during our trips to the Pacific Islands that the ocean doesn’t separate the islands, it connects them. Voyaging is real source of pride for the Pacific Islanders, a part of their identity. They were, and continue to be, some of the greatest explorers of all time. This wayfinding sense is not only quite sophisticated, it is miraculous.”
After viewing the movie, the sense of pride Moana feels in her ancestry and culture is tangible. One of the songs in the soundtrack “I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” sums up it all up perfectly as the heroine sings:
Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island
I’m the girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me
I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!
From the mesmerizing and captivating animation of the ocean to the scenes depicting the village life at Motunui, Moana is an homage to a beautiful culture with an amazing ancestry which tells a universal, coming-of-age story that transcends culture.
Get swept away by Moana, in theatres November 23.