Moana: Folklore Goes Digital and Worldwide

Walt Disney Studios' latest film tells the story of a young girl raised to become chief of her people. She comes to discover she is destined for even greater deeds.

It’s Sunday evening after the Thanksgiving holiday and my family and I are looking forward to an evening at the movies. So many spectacular films come out during this time of year, how to choose? We were all looking forward to seeing Moana for many reasons. Some being that my father is a life-long surfer and has a deep appreciation for Polynesian culture and history. The other reasons being the digital animation for this film looked incredible with such realistic textures, and because I was curious to see how Disney choose to represent Polynesian culture. Here we have a huge evolutionary shift in how we tell and share stories. For the ancient Polynesians, stories were shared by word of mouth, today movies, especially in 3D that enhance reality, are the most popular platforms for telling stories. As archaeologists, anthropologists and humanists, we may ask how the finished product of such an endeavor like a Disney movie, can portray an ancient culture and represent it authentically through the looking glass of the movie industry and digital technologies. We may say that Disney set a great precedent with Moana when the studio created an Oceanic Trust of scholarly and cultural advisers that actively contributed to the movie making.

We read that when writer-director duo John Musker and Ron Clements told Disney Animation chief John Lasseter that they were interested in creating a new story based on the Polynesian demi-god Maui, Lasseter was clear that the project would not go any further until Musker and Clements came up with solid research that would ensure the movie to be sensitive and respectful of local traditions and culture. Musker and Clements took a first trip to Polynesia in 2011, the first of many, which led to the birth of what they would later name the Oceanic Trust. Consisting of a group of anthropologists, cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers from islands including Samoa, Tahiti, Mo’orea, and Fiji, this group was integral in ensuring that Moana would not be just entertaining, but also culturally authentic. From shaping some of the finest details of Moana to character design to song lyrics, the Trust helped the authors and director to represent Polynesian people’s connection to navigation, to their ancestry, and their respect for nature.

We believe that the movie industry can greatly help raise interest and awareness about world cultures, traditions, and archaeology. We like to think of this movie as a successful partnership between the movie industry and humanities research, a new way for humanities studies to become more and more relevant to a much larger audience than scholars and affiliates. Well, at CoDA, we watched it and we loved it!

The landscape, pristine Pacific Islands in a time where ancient Polynesian folklore ruled its people’s worldview and tradition was sacred. Gods and goddesses are feared and respected for their tails of how they shaped the land and ocean. People lived off the simple splendors the islands and sea had to offer for food, clothing, shelter and tools. I give Walt Disney Studios props for the research done in creating the best snapshot of what a day-in-the-life looked like in times like these. Because so much of ancient Polynesian culture was shared by word of mouth and documented on mostly natural materials, which decay over time, it wasn’t until Captain Cook and his exploration team logged their experiences and findings that we have preserved documentation of how the Polynesians lived. Though the western world has much devoured the Polynesian way of life, songs, stories, and some traditions live on. For this story to have been created and embraced by Disney Studios I believe will help to bring more exposure to such cultures on a worldwide scale. And though Disney is famous for taking a story and putting the magical Disney twist on it, I believe they were respectful enough to leave a great deal of the old stories in place (in the photo below a scene from the movie).

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We give Walt Disney Studios props for their research done in creating the best snapshot of what a day-in-the-life looked like in times like these.

Read more about Disney's Research.

The character of Moana is strong minded and curious. She feels a deep draw to the sea but is prohibited from stepping foot in the water. With a little push from her grandmother, Moana discovers her lust for exploring the great ocean is rooted in her people’s long practice of voyaging to distant islands and main lands to establish trade and settlements had become a hidden truth. Today, researchers have come to find more and more evidence that trace back to the ancient Polynesians who did in fact sailed from the Southeast Pacific Islands to as far as South America and the coast of California. One can say that they were among the first to navigate the Pacific. They built canoes with large sails as well as massive outrigger-styled vessels that were capable of transporting larger groups of people. There are not many of these artifacts remaining as they were build out of wood and people had limited ways of protecting the boats from years of exposure to the elements. The ancient Polynesians didn’t have compasses or hand drawn maps to guide them. They took their cues from birds, water current temperatures, and developed ways of mentally mapping the stars using their outstretched hands to measure degrees in longitude and latitude.

Osnat Shurer and renowned directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Aladdin”) shared early test footage.

Osnat Shurer and renowned directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Aladdin”) shared early test footage.

In our modern world of technological advances, the skills of boat building has been left to a distinct population of craftsman and we have our handy GPSs built into our phones to tell us how to get from here to there and tell us which stars are which. Bringing ancient folklore to the big screen in the form of digital animation I hope creates a new sense of pride and ownership for younger Polynesian generations, a deeper appreciation of a people whose heritage has been marginalized into a romanticized vacation destination, and in hopes for stories like these will continue to live on.