Why Disney’s Moana Is Such an Important Movie
I am beyond obsessed with Moana right now.
The latest Disney movie finally represents me.
That’s right, me.
Me, with my impossibly thick curly-wavy hair that can only go in a ponytail, a high bun, or hang down, which gets in my face (and others’) no matter what I do.
Me, with my dark skin and thick eyebrows.
Me, who grew up without a single Disney character to really identify with.
Me, who always felt ugly for not being white and always eating Indian food.
Me, blubbering at 3D stingrays at 24 years old.
I knew it as soon as I heard about it.
Moana is such an important movie. It’s big step in the representation of people of colour in Disney movies, in particular Polynesian people. How many Disney movies can you think of that feature Polynesian characters?
Even beyond the cultural representation, it features a female Polynesian character. A female who spends the entire movie trying to realize her life dream, and doesn’t let anyone stop her. Sure, this isn’t a breakthrough as many Disney movies feature young women. But a female Polynesian? Again, not many.
It is so important that young people can see themselves represented on the screen, and Disney is doing a better job of that lately. Even me, a fully grown adult, finally feels included.
Needless to say, when Moana’s trailer first hit the interwebs, I was all over it.
My mother is from Fiji, though her heritage is South Indian. My father is really mixed: Hawaiian, Samoan, Chinese, and Indian as well.
Yes, I identify as Canadian. Yes, I also identify with Indian culture. But see, a lot of the Indian culture I’ve learned is actually Fijian-Indian because of my mom. Though I know less about the rest of my Polynesian heritage, I sure am proud of it!
I’m also obsessed with the ocean. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the west coast. I have no idea. But my whole life, I’ve always loved the ocean.
I knew this was my freaking movie.
Then, when the full film came out, I saw it twice. The first time was with friends, the second time was with my family because my mom chose it as her birthday movie. I think she was excited to see a movie with a little version of herself — she never watches animated movies anymore. Even mommas are happy to see a Disney character of themselves!
Oh, and I’m likely going to see it again with another friend or two.
Yep. There’s just no telling how far I’ll go.
(Get it? Be proud of me, I’ve been holding that in for a while.)
(If you don’t get it, shame on you. Watch this and then come back and be proud of me.)
Proud of me? Sweet.
Now listen… I’m not geeking out just because the character looks like me.
Moana’s story really hits home.
It’s a story lots of people deal with: feeling pressured to meet some sort of family expectation while your heart is somewhere else. Particularly with Moana, it’s about living up to the expectation to stay with her family and fulfil her duties at home, but she just can’t help wishing she could explore the world.
While I don’t have statistics to back it, I believe that this is indeed common among people that aren’t from Canadian or American culture. It was nice to see it in a Disney movie. It’s a little stereotypical, yes but there is truth to it and that spoke to me.
Even now, living with Grady in a different city, I feel a lot of pressure to go back home and not only just stay with my family, but be there for my elders. It’s an important cultural family value. And like Moana, it’s not like I don’t want to — there’s just so much more I want to see and do. And of course I feel guilty about it. I wish I could be the perfect daughter too!
(Straight up, I tell ya, Moana’s life is my life.)
Now, for the average viewer, it might seem like a bit of a cliché. I won’t lie: after Frozen, the complexity of Moana‘s story isn’t its best selling point. This would be part of why it didn’t explode box offices— besides the fact that it’s competing with Rogue One and it doesn’t feature white characters.
(Not trying to be arse. You can’t deny that lack of whiteness will affect how well it does. Remember The Princess & the Frog? Fantastic movie! Amazing music! Different story! Didn’t get nearly enough attention. I wonder why.)
Plus, Moana’s relationship with her grandmother made me cry. Legit. Like six times. My sister made fun of me because I’d already seen it, too.
But the story is important because of how relatable it is to any first-generation person. It is just HUGE to see our story on screen in a beautiful Disney movie. I can’t even explain how much it means to finally feel seen, valued, and represented.
And the music, oh the music!
Okay, I’ll admit I don’t know a lot about Polynesian music besides what I heard when I visited Fiji that one time in 2010. But it is beautiful! I think Disney did a really great job of creating music representative of different Polynesian cultures while incorporating English lyrics into them as well. This is also really important: I don’t know too many songs that do this well and are deemed especially successful.
And it is successful. Moana’s music is comparable to that of Frozen. “How Far I’ll Go” was already at #6 on the charts less than two weeks after the movie was released, and in 2015 “Let It Go” was #5.
It is wonderful to know that cultural music is valued instead of looked down upon.
But, Sareeta… the controversy!
Yeah, yeah. The whole costume situation was a screw-up, most definitely. Nobody can pretend that one away.
As for the problems surrounding how Maui is represented in the movie, well… I have an unpopular opinion. At least from what I’ve read, most of the concern is that Maui is unfairly represented as “overweight” and “obese,” reinforcing “typical American” negative stereotypes about Polynesian men. I think that frustration is unfair, because it just enforces fat shaming like no tomorrow to say that he “looked like after he fished up the Islands, he deep fried em and ate em.” I also think the meme that Jenny Salesa created to reflect this perspective is also really awful, implying that being big is bad.
When I watched the movie, I really didn’t think much of Maui’s size, to be quite honest! I got a sense of strength and power, if anything.
However, there’s also a legitimate concern that Maui is made out to be a comical character, when in Polynesian culture he is a very serious, important character, even if he is a trickster. This is something that I’m disappointed in Disney about. I know that they went out of their way to gather the Oceanic Trust, a group of people of different Polynesian cultures who acted as consultants during the making of this movie… so I wonder where they went wrong. I actually heard that there are many interpretations of Maui too, so I’m not sure exactly about this. How can he be serious and a trickster? Confusing, but perhaps Disney could have done a better job.
Still, Moana will touch the hearts of many and it will fulfil many childhood wishes.
I won’t pretend it’s better than Zootopia or Inside Out. It’s not. But it is a “princess” movie, even if Moana is not a princess. The movie was bound to be a little limited by its genre.
But even with its faults, I’m so freaking happy to see a movie with an adventurous young woman of colour — a Polynesian at that! It spoke to me, years older than their target audience, and you bet it will speak to other young children like me. I wish I could have seen myself in a movie as a child.
The impact that this movie can have for people who feel underrepresented is indescribable. And you have to admit, it’s big of Disney to even venture into touchy subjects like a cultural demigod.
I’ve said it before: it isn’t perfect, but it’s a HUGE step in the right direction.
Have you seen Moana? What did you think of the controversy? Share in the comments below!
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