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This article considers Victorian interpretations of Maui mythology to examine how they are repurposed by the Disney Corporation for the film Moana (2016). For both the Victorians and Disney, Maui functions as a reference point through which they can insert their agenda, be it colonial or commercial, a sort of unifying emblem around which narrative colonization can occur. Likewise, the film's tropical setting generates a sense of foreignness in the twenty-first century western viewer that echoes the Victorian reader's interaction with ancient Polynesian histories conveyed by their countrymen. Where representatives of Victoria's crown modified tales of Pacific traditions with targeted empirical aims, the Disney film fuses pan-Pacific artistic elements, which coalesce as a unified foreign culture. I contend that the Victorians reinforce a violent, initial colonization through their accounts of oral tradition; while Disney, working within the networks of global capitalism, produces a marketable product that is, in essence, a wholly new culture intended to be viewed--and consumed--as some "authentic" form of the past. In addition to the Maui figure, this essay analyzes the hand-drawn animation of the Maui character's tattoos and the use of "tapa animation" to produce a sense of cultural authenticity while imposing Disney's style on material exhibitions of oral tradition. These elements, I assert, erase specificity of cultures spanning the Pacific and fuses societies from New Zealand to Hawai'i as a single, unnamed Other. While the storyline of Moan a reflects ancient traditions it also inserts Disney into that history, thus laying claim on any future iteration, essentially colonizing narrative itself.


While much ink has been spilled over the impact of the Victorians on contemporary understandings of the Middle Ages, comparatively little has been said about how records of Pacific Island cultures were produced for western consumption. This is particularly true of the period around the end of the "long pause," the moment-sometime between the fifth and twelfth centuries--in which eastern migration of native Polynesians resumed following a cessation of more than a millennium and a half (Terrell 1753; Thomas 110). However, paradigms used to study culture in the western Middle Ages can be functional avenues to conversations about the contemporaneous Pacific in large part because Victorians were colonizing Polynesia at the same time British philologists rediscovered and published medieval texts. While Alfred Tennyson crafted "Morte d'Arthur," Sir George Grey, at Her Majesty's bequest, served as Governor-in-Chief of New Zealand where he set out to smooth "hostilities with the Queen's troops" by traveling the islands to record accounts of the culture and history of the Maori people (Grey iii).

The link between Pacific and Atlantic becomes even more significant in light of the primary concern of this paper: how Victorian interpretations of ancient mythology are repurposed by the Disney Corporation for its film Moana (2016). Contemporary scholars have noted that "the Disney Princess films ... draw value from the narrative traditions to which they refer, and their claims to translate these traditions into wholesome entertainment for children: to deliver old stories to new audiences" (Bradford 173). Moana is no exception. Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Beauty and the Beast (1991), Moana animates a variation of stories rooted in oral tradition. In contrast to these earlier films, however, Moana, like its predecessors Aladdin (1992) and Mulan (1998), presents ancient mythology unfamiliar to its largely western audience. As such, the film provides an added novelty through its foreignness and tropical setting. This also generates an experience in the twenty-first century viewer that echoes the Victorian reader's interaction with ancient Polynesian histories conveyed by their countrymen. Where representatives of Victoria's crown modified tales of specific Pacific traditions with targeted empirical aims, Disney conflates this mythology and inserts itself (creating a character who enacts a series of events that end the long pause) to generate a marketable product that is, in essence, a wholly new culture intended to be viewed--and consumed--as some "authentic" form of the past.

Ultimately, the Victorians reinforce a violent, initial colonization through their accounts of oral tradition; while Disney, working within the networks of global capitalism, produces narrative colonization in a much shrewder form. Animation scholar Paul Wells has already gestured toward a link between the imperial mindset of Victorian-era ethnographers and what he calls "Disney's industrial process" (.America 23). In Animation and America, Wells defines this practice as "the hybridisation of realistic and fantastic forms within a Victorian ethical coding, that embraces the material world as a place that can be ultimately rationalized, reconciled of its dangers, and invigorated by the buoyant energies of popular creative idioms, all of which fundamentally underpin what has become identified as 'Classic Disney'" (24). Wells is able to make this connection given the social fragmentation at work in both late nineteenth century England (in the form of the industrial revolution and the threat cross-continental imperialism poses to cultural purity) and twenty-first century America (typified by postmodern isolation and abstraction). Where Victoria's subjects used translation of narrative from oral to written form to assimilate peoples whose land they occupied, Disney "promote[s] a particular kind of 'Americanism,' and affirm[s] an art-form" (Wells, America 48). The "Americanism" to which Wells refers is one based on a capitalist economy and the "art-form" being affirmed is that cultivated by the Disney brand. While the storyline of Moana reflects ancient traditions it also inserts Disney into that history, thus laying claim on any future iteration, essentially colonizing narrative itself.

It is not only important to understand how folklore is refigured on film, examining the origin of the mythology that serves as source material is equally vital. Analyzing the Victorian imposition onto Polynesian oral tradition makes the temporal and geographic distance of these narratives more visible, a necessity given imperial recording practices echo Disney's approach to the Middle Ages. In her article on the medievalisms of the Disney princess, Clare Bradford explains "[b]oth fields of narrative (historical fiction and Disney Princess films) manifest contradictory views of ancient pasts: non-western cultures and the Middle Ages are both desirable and abhorrent, valued for qualities such as mystery and simplicity and simultaneously derided for superstition and inflexibility" (178-79). Moana more than gestures to the medieval period. In an early iteration directors Ron Clements and John Musker envisioned the film as "a tween in King Arthur's Ocean-type story," placing "a contemporary kid" in the world of her ancestors before deciding to present a protagonist of her (medieval) time (Snetiker n.p.). Knowing how each narrative iteration functions helps distinguish at what point (and to what end) narrative colonization occurred.

This desire to revive and reinterpret the past is echoed in collections of Polynesian mythology that emerged during and immediately following the Victorian era. Author of one of the most commonly referenced Pacific mythology records, Grey's account of Maori traditions is a particularly revelatory means of examining Victorian interpretations of the medieval period. (1) Victorians recovered the histories of medieval Europeans while gathering information on lands (and peoples) they hoped to possess, likely causing the reading of one to affect their interpretation of the other. Grey's preface to Polynesian Mythology is especially useful in this respect, as he deploys both the language of imperialism and expresses a tension "between the desire to make the Middle Ages an entity and to interpret them" (Stock 540). His aim, with this volume, was to permit "for the first time" the "European reader ... to place himself in the position of one who listens to a heathen and savage high-priest, explaining to him, in his own words and in his own energetic manner, the traditions in which he earnestly believes" (Grey xiii). Grey's preface signals an effort to connect the mid-nineteenth century British reader with an exotic Other mired in mythology that predates contact more than a century prior.

First connecting present to past, Grey continues by linking British culture to the Pacific. He writes, "that the religious faith of the races who trust in them is absurd is a melancholy fact; but all my experience leads me to believe that the Saxon, Celtic, and Scandinavian systems of mythology, could we have become intimately acquainted with them, would be found in no respects to surpass that one which the European reader may now thoroughly understand" (xiii). Grey is clearly acknowledging a separation in his contemporaries' conception of their place in global history. In identifying this juxtaposition, he is paradoxically crafting a connection rooted in Victorian medievalism, the rise in British interest in the aesthetics and practices of the Middle Ages. Grey calls attention to Victorian sensibilities, namely curiosity about ancient peoples of western Europe, which should translate to an interest in ancient New Zealanders. Further, the idea that something about the self that can be learned from studying the Other underlies his argument. Although Grey is undoubtedly marginalizing Maori belief systems, he structures this disparagement within the context of European cultural evolution, placing the Maori on a continuum of possibility.

The British were not the only colonizers to make connections across peoples of the Pacific and Atlantic regions in the Middle Ages. Johannes C. Andersen, a Dane raised in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, collected Polynesian mythology, publishing a volume shortly after the First World War. He begins his preface with an assertion situating island peoples within a global context: "[t]he Polynesians were bold navigators long before the Phoenicians ventured out of the Mediterranean; they had explored and settled the Pacific long before Columbus groped across the Atlantic" (5). Not only does Andersen view Polynesian histories alongside nineteenth-century European understandings of the Middle Ages, he also makes a case for a literary history of the Maori and other Polynesian peoples, declaring "[i]t is said that they have no literature; they have a splendid one, but it has hitherto and through the ages been circulated by word of mouth, retained, as all civilized literature was originally, in the memory" (5, emphasis added). Andersen is explicitly connecting the English literary tradition to Polynesian mythology, simultaneously emphasizing that the now "civilized" Europeans were once in a similar position, namely, developing sophisticated folklore solely through oral transmission. For Andersen, then, Polynesian accounts from the Middle Ages are just as valuable as any study of medieval Europeans. Even Grey, who is decidedly less complimentary, agrees on this point, insisting "the puerility of these traditions and barbarous mythological systems by no means diminishes their importance as regards to their influence upon the human race" (xiii).

One of the most powerful of the ancient Polynesian mythologies is the legend of Maui. A principal character in Moana, perennial cross-cultural hero Maui offers an avenue for translating Victorian-era British colonization to the primary manifestation of American imperialism, commoditization. Maui's popularity across Polynesia coupled with the deviations in his narrative make him acutely marketable. Between Victorian and capitalist interests, Maui proves a particularly useful figure for examination. (2) The period from roughly the mid-nineteenth century through the First World War that generated substantial ethnographic research on Europe and Polynesia during the era now known as the Middle Ages also produced a spate of Polynesian mythology collections. Nearly all of these accounts include a Maui cycle in some form. Martha Beckwith, student of Franz Boas and first Folklore chair in the United States, explains:
   The deeds of Maui, the well-known
   trickster hero of Polynesia, are reported
   sporadically in Hawaii ... Most of
   the principal episodes of the Maui
   cycle found in other groups occur,
   but sometimes with considerable or
   complete variation from forms familiar
   in the south [such as Samoa,
   New Zealand, and Tahiti] ... That in
   spite of the fragmentary and modernized
   form in which it survives the
   story is very old is evident from its
   wide localization. (226)

The "fragmentary and modernized" form to which Beckwith refers is the distortion most Polynesian folktales underwent from their oral transmission to the first English missionaries and on through the Victorian period. As she notes, however, the fact that so many variations remain, no matter how bastardized, is indicative of Maui's import across Polynesian cultures.

The prevalence and accessibility of Maui's legend is likely what led Disney to the inspiration for Moana. Clements and Musker observed his pervasiveness while researching mythology for a "story set in the world of the South Pacific, Polynesia" (Sciretta n.p.). Wells observes, "[a]ll animated films [...] start with a concept, a central 'controlling idea'" (Genre 16). For Clements and Musker, this "controlling idea" was not the independent-minded daughter of a Polynesian chief but a cross-cultural demi-god, who, they assert, "most [western] people are not that familiar with" (Sciretta n.p.). Clements explains early iterations of Moana in an interview with /Film, recalling:

very early on we worked up a basic storyline centered around the character of Maui. He just seemed like a great character to kind of build a movie around. [...] He's Pan Pacific. There are stories of Maui everywhere in the South Pacific. They're different. Different areas have different interpretations. [...] that was kind of the inspiration and we came up with a very simple basic storyline, focusing on Maui. (Sciretta n.p.)

In this interview it becomes evident Maui was chosen not only for his prevalence across Polynesian cultures but precisely because of the variation such distribution produced. As Clements makes clear, their concept was borne from a lack of western knowledge that could be filled by adding Disney's interpretation of a diverse and nuanced mythology. (3) By crafting their own, highly stylized demi-god, Disney fashioned a figure who could embody any iteration of the icon on infinitely reproducible merchandising opportunities.

For both the Victorians and Disney, Maui functions as a reference point through which they can insert their agenda, be it colonial or commercial, a sort of unifying emblem around which narrative colonization can occur. Although there is, as Beckwith reports, substantial variation in Maui's tales (226), his accomplishments are relatively easily summarized in their essence because, despite a disparity in how or why he completes his many achievements, what Maui accomplishes is fairly consistent across each mythology. Depending on the cultural tradition, Maui is associated with the gods, typically as a demigod or mortal who achieves godlike status. In Hawai'i, for example, he is among a class known as the "kupua," tricksters who are demigods and perform heroic acts. While there are many accounts of his various tricks, such as turning his brother-in-law into a dog, Maui is primarily known for his assistance to the human race. He is credited, to varying degrees, with slowing down the sun to elongate summer days, pulling up islands with an enchanted fishhook (including some of those of the Hawaiian and New Zealand archipelagos), being able to transform into any bird (or climbing into a bird's body as a disguise), and bringing fire to humanity to enable the cooking of food.

Of course, the rich legacy of Maui's accomplishments, as well as his place in specific Polynesian folklores, is far more nuanced than I can account for here. However, this very broad overview offers a general understanding of his role in creation legends. A closer reading of these translated stories speaks to the "violence to the rhetorical text created in the oral tales," due to the changes made in their recording and preservation concerning "the control of desire and imagination within the symbolical order of western culture" (Zipes, Myth 12-13). For these purposes, I will address two interrelated moments: Maui's initiation into his family structure and the corresponding tale of his demise as presented by both the Victorians and Disney.

Polynesian mythology, like the stories of Maui, was, essentially, translated on at least three levels by the turn of the twentieth century. First, it was converted from oral tradition (by an indigenous person) to a written account by a non-native speaker (typically a representative of the colonizer), then structured into a coherent narrative by the non-native speaker and edited to prove informative to an Anglo-Christian population. This may account for discrepancies in Maui's cause of death across cultures. Hawai'i, for example, was best remembered by the British for killing famed explorer Captain James Cook (by being beaten/stabbed). Accordingly, documented Hawaiian lore indicates Maui meets his end by being bludgeoned to death after someone took offense to one of his many tricks. A more common reading of his death, however, situates it as the consequence of an effort to obtain immortality for humans. The exact cause of the death, according to highly influential source Grey, is an improper baptism to an unspecified religion.

Grey dedicates the entire second chapter of Polynesian Mythology to "The Legend of Maui," tracing his story from birth to death. Maui's mother throws him into the sea when he is born, so much of his origin is centered on locating (and relocating) his family. After finding his parents his mother immediately predicts, "you shall hereafter be climbed the threshold of the house of your great ancestor Hine-nuite-po [Maori goddess of death], and death shall henceforth have no power over man" (22). This prophecy foreshadows Maui's final effort at heroism, as do the actions of his father, which immediately follow:

Then the lad was taken by his father to the water, to be baptized, and after the ceremony prayers were offered to make him sacred, and clean from all impurities; but when it was completed, his father Makea-tu-tara felt greatly alarmed, because he remembered that he had, from mistake, hurriedly skipped over part of the prayers of the baptismal service, and of the services to purify Maui; he knew that the gods would be certain to punish this fault, by causing Maui to die, and his alarm and anxiety were therefore extreme. (Grey 22)

Grey's focus on baptism-gone-wrong as a source for Maui's destined destruction is intriguing, in part for its muddying of the Christian religion with pagan tradition without naming either. His diction is intentional, with variations on "baptize" appearing twice here, and then again at the end of the legend. However, Grey's discussion of the father's concerns is careful to avoid Christianity, specifically referring to multiple gods who will be displeased by a poorly conducted religious rite, one that heretofore is unassociated with Maori spirituality. (4) By incorporating Christian dogma with Maori beliefs rather than replacing them wholesale, Grey indicates a cultivated process of enculturation at work to ingrain religious practice as one of many colonial imperatives.

Much like the Victorians, the narrative colonization of Moana begins with plot. The film follows the western structure, but with the addition of the Disney princess model. A young woman is introduced as exceptional (exposition), the viewer learns she is somehow oppressed or, at least, being held back from achieving her full potential and she sets off on a journey of self-discovery (rising action). She has a brief (or initial) encounter with the villain (climax), resulting in a temporary loss of faith that must be overcome (falling action), the villain is defeated, and she lives happily ever after (conclusion). (5) The pan-Polynesian heroine presented serves as a model for young people, but given the framework the film provides, there is no clear indication of what culture should be emulated. The film establishes what Wells describes as "the ownership of an aesthetic which is not undermined or challenged by its visual or literary sources" (Genre 88). Essentially, the only obvious cultural representation in Moana becomes the Disney brand.

The film fuses pan-Pacific artistic elements with Disney's style imposing its brand on material exhibitions of oral tradition. This becomes an issue, as Jack Zipes explains in The Enchanted Screen, because for Disney cultural heritage provides "only a pre-text [...] the materials to be appropriated and adapted for production purposes that served market needs. Behind such purposes, of course, was an ideology commensurate with the capitalist mode of production and commodity fetishism that was intended to shape the vision of audiences so that they would want to see and consume more of the same" (24). Through the power of the Disney aesthetic Moana becomes most dangerous given its visuality, especially when considering that in "the world of globalized capitalism, children and adults are more apt to be familiar with cinematic versions" of oral and written tales alike (Zipes, Enchanted 22). For Moana, the trouble here lies in the effort to colonize not only folk stories but the culture itself, from dance to fabric.

The implications of a Disney-stylization are especially consequential in relation to Maui given his many tattoos modeled after the traditional Samoan style and their role in conveying the film's version of his origin story. In Tattoo: An Anthropology, Makiko Kuwahara explains the practice's significance, "to prevent their mana [strong affiliation with the gods] from transmitting to objects and other people, and to preserve them inside" (42). Anthropologists including Alfred Gell have observed similar applications across other Polynesian islands, and ultimately it led Disney to consult Su'a Peter Sulu'ape, a sixth-generation Samoan master tattooist, when designing Maui (Ito). Disney adds an element of "magic" to the sanctity of these tattoos by animating them, in particular a "mini-Maui" who acts as a stand-in for the heroic acts depicted across this body. To understand the role of "mini-Maui" and tattoo animation, there must first be an examination of how Maui's tattoos are introduced as a means of explaining his origin.

From the time Moana locates Maui on the island to which he was banished by Te-Ka and until they track down Maui's fishhook, nothing is known about the demi-god prior to his attempt to, per Disney's telling, give humans the power of creation. While trying to retrieve his fishhook, which is the sole source of his power in the film, first Moana then Maui (captured when he realizes he is out of practice in using his magical tool) find themselves at the mercy of the evil sea creature who is keeping it, Tamatoa. (6) At this point, the villain sings the revelatory evildoer's plan song common to Disney features. Rather than simply disclosing his intentions (in this case, to eat our heroes), Tamatoa contextualizes Maui, linking his supernatural abilities to his own origin. As he blocks out the sun, engulfing the scene in darkness, he explains in song, "Far from the ones who abandoned you/Chasing the love of these humans/Who made you feel wanted." Pulling from Victorian accounts that Maui's parents initially tossed him into the sea, Tamatoa's description establishes the Disney analog for Maui's service to humanity (gaining power to create life rather than end death). Tamatoa then brushes Maui's hair aside, exposing in the middle of his back a tattoo depicting a woman tossing an infant into the sea. A glimpse of the tattoo provides context for the viewer about Maui's inspiration for his service to humanity.

This tattoo is seen, and explained, in poignant detail in the scene following the heroes' escape. Now free from danger, Maui repeatedly tries, and fails, to harness the power of his fishhook. Sitting up after a final attempt, Moana is able to view the tattoo more closely (this time in the moonlight) prompting her to inquire of Maui the source of the designs, to which he replies they "show up" when he "earns them." Pointing to the tattoo of the infant being tossed into the ocean, she asks, "Is that why your hook's not working?" After much cajoling, Maui reveals that as an unwanted baby he was tossed into the sea by his parents, found by the gods, and gifted the magical fishhook. (7) Realizing all of his adventures are an attempt to secure love, Moana reminds Maui of his self-worth, and he is likewise supported by his "mini-Maui" tattoo. His confidence restored, one of Opetaia Foa'i's songs recorded for the film, "Logo Te Pate," takes over. (8) The scene transforms from night to day as "mini-Maui" illustrates the adventure to come (heretofore the tattoos have only reenacted history), Maui regains his power, and Moana learns to become a "master wayfarer."

To say that Maui's tattoos, particularly the interactive "mini-Maui," are meaningful would be an understatement. Moana, like most twenty-first century Disney films, is entirely CGI-animated with the notable exception of Maui's tattoos, which are all hand-drawn in traditional 2D (see figure 1). An official Disney outlet explains, "[e]arly on in the process, filmmakers decided to bring the demigod's tattoos--representative of longstanding tradition in Samoa--to life in a time-honored, two-dimensional way" (Potter n.p.). The implications of this decision are even more austere in light of Wells's observation about the "hyper-realism" of Disney's early animation advancements. He contends Disney features have worked to "transcend the implied limitations of the cartoon idiom" and, in so doing, "[progress was measured in the ways the technological conditions of production had facilitated an art comparable to live action," forgoing the value of "the distinctive dynamics of the cartoon and the experimentation inherent in the abstract" (America 46, emphasis in original). If hand-drawn Disney animation presents a hyper-realism, then CGI goes beyond even that leading to the perception of manual techniques as traditional and nostalgic. These evocations mark hand-drawn Disney as classic, buttressing the presentation of the animated tattoo sequences as "genuine" cultural artifacts.

A similar effect is achieved with perhaps even greater emphasis on cultural authenticity, through what I will term "tapa animation," which Disney uses to relate the history of Maui's achievements and demise. Like Grey and other British representatives in the nineteenth century, Disney is able to insert themselves into an ethnic tradition through recording its own variation and disseminating it for mass consumption. However, as with other elements of narrative colonization, Disney takes the process a step further by uniting narrative and cultural conflation with their brand of animation. This practice is most conspicuous in tapa animation. Disney makes ample use of tapa, (9) an ancient fabric rendered from bark, in scenery as well as animation. The deployment of tapa is exceptionally meaningful when considering, "[f]ine mats and tapa were, and are, used in Polynesian ritual as efficacious objects, meaning that they may create or reveal--by wrapping-up--the presence of the sacred in a given place" (Tcherkezoff 164, emphasis in original). Given that "in Polynesia, cloth enabled the invisible bodies of the gods to be made manifest," it is unsurprising that scenes recounting Maui's history showcase tapa prominently (Tcherkezoff 166).

There are two sequences in the movie that are animated in a style meant to mimic the texture and pattern of tapa. Each of these occurs at a pivotal moment in the film and involves re-counting Polynesian mythology (both historical and imagined). The first is the opening scene of the film, the story of (in Disney's telling) the island goddess of creation, Te Fiti, as told by Moana's grandmother, Tala, in voiceover. Te Fiti is not rooted in any Polynesian mythology. Furthering the thesis that Moana promotes a cultural confusion, some fans have observed a similarity between Te Fiti and Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess. (10) In this iteration, however, I would argue that narratively she is most comparable to Hine-nuite-po, who is responsible for Maui's death in Maori mythology. (11)

The first image that appears in the film, immediately following the iconic Cinderella's castle and Steamboat Willie production logos, is a full-screen depiction of the ocean animated in the tapa style. As a goddess rises from the fabricated scene, presented in the same fashion, Tala explains that from nothing, "the mother island emerged, Te Fiti." A foil to Hine-nui-te-po, Disney's Te Fiti has the power of life. Tala continues, "her heart held the greatest power ever known: it could create life itself." Although Disney's set-up seems diametrically opposed to pan-Pacific mythos, the result in each story is the same--Maui sets out to find Te Fiti's heart hoping to gain further acclaim capturing "the great power of creation" for humanity (in essence, a family-friendly version of ending death). Instead, Maui is taken down by a goddess.

Tala's foundational tale progresses and she explains the many villains who sought this power for themselves. Although she does not name them, most of the tapa animated figures--notably, Tamatoa and the Kakamora, legendary short-statured beings of the Solomon Islands reimagined as coconut men by Disney--will attempt to thwart Moana's journey at various points in the narrative. Maui is briefly shown, first in tapa, then transforming himself into a bird and flying directly toward the audience, occupying the space of the entire frame. This sequence switches from tapa animation to the CGI and hand-drawn animation combination that Disney will use for the majority of the film. After using his fishhook to pry Te Fiti's heart free, Maui runs to the ocean as the island appears to disintegrate, birthing what Tala describes as "a terrible darkness." Maui is immediately confronted by Te-Ka, "a demon of earth and fire," who strikes him "from the sky never to be seen again." In light of the film's final revelation, Te-Ka and Te Fiti are dual manifestations of the same deity. Tala concludes her story with Maui's disappearance, and the mythological flashback dissolves to the narrative present, which is introduced by tapa depicting Te-Ka and Tamatoa and which is traditionally drawn. The viewer has seen the story framed by tapa (first in animation, then incorporated into the narrative itself), with Tala speaking to the village children using tapa as a visual aid (see figure 2).

The framing device used in this sequence is representative of the narrative colonization at work in the project as a whole. The Disney-stylized character is flanked by animation intended to echo traditional aesthetic forms so that the Disney version, through visual incorporation, turns to a sense of cultural authenticity to embed itself within a codified mythology. Tala pulls out a final piece of tapa, holding it to fill the screen as she floods it with ink to indicate the peril facing their people in Maui's absence. Toddler-Moana is set apart from her compatriots by her response to this tale intended to terrify; she claps as her fellows exhibit a range of responses including crying, screaming, and fainting. Tala's opening story is established as Moana's inspiration for defying her father's orders that "no one goes outside the reef." She prophesizes, "one day the heart will be found by someone who will journey beyond our reef, find Maui, deliver him across the great ocean to restore Te Fiti's heart and save us all." Immediately following this scene, Moana wanders to the ocean where, after forgoing a beautiful shell to escort a baby turtle safely from the tree line to its parent and away from hungry sea birds, the ocean delivers her the heart of Ti Fiti to complete Tala's quest.

Linguistically, the name Te Fiti is much less significant, though it furthers the cross-cultural pollination so pervasive in Moana. A Smithsonian scholar has pointed out, "Tahiti, in its various linguistic forms, including Tafiti, is a pan-Polynesian word for any faraway place," which makes the villain nothing more than a distant objective (Herman n.p.). By opening the film with a semantic bastardization not grounded in any historical mythology and setting it apart through the use of tapa animation, Disney establishes a narrative that is more aesthetic colonization than historic preservation. This is especially apt given the second instance of this animation style.

The next tapa scene occurs during Maui's feature song, "You're Welcome," which is, essentially, a two minute and forty-four second overview of his many accomplishments across various Polynesian mythologies. The song incorporates both tattoo and tapa animation, doubly reinforcing narrative colonization through appeals to cultural legitimacy. Kuwahara argues that tapa and tattooing are linked: "[a]nalogous to clothing, from the Polynesian perspective, the skin was another significant wrapping of the body. [...] Tattooing, however, rewrapped the body by creating a second layer of skin" (41). Recalling that tapa was used in ceremonial rituals to "wrap-up" the sacred, Kuwahara proposes "tattooing was a transpositional form of socially patterned wrapping practice" (39). The use of both mediums, already linked in pan-Pacific traditions, accentuates in Maui's only song the evocation of sacred Polynesian mythology.

The first eight stanzas of "You're Welcome" chronicle Maui's accomplishments--capturing fire, slowing the sun, harnessing the breeze, and pulling up the sky and islands--cutting between CGI-Maui's lyrical exposition and the hand-drawn tattoos enacting each of his great feats. The animation transitions when Maui, singing "Kid, honestly I can go on and on," pulls out a piece of tapa, swings it, covering the screen, and resumes as a CGI figure surrounded by tapa scenery and characters. Maui continues explaining his role in "every natural phenomenon," as CGI-Moana joins him in the tapa-set past of his memory. After describing his triumphs, Maui calls attention to "the tapestry" on his skin which he describes as "a map" of his victories, linking tapa and tattoo ideologically, orally, and visually. The sequence ends when Maui spins Moana into a cave as he attempts to steal her boat, returning her to reality and the viewer to the CGI-animated filmic present. The use of animation techniques that call upon an "authentic" cultural artifact to mix historical and invented mythology is highly problematic, perhaps even more so than the Victorians' insertions, considering Disney's formation of the "Oceanic Story Trust" in an effort to legitimize their rendering of Polynesian mythology. (12) As one indigenous rights activist explains, "[h]aving brown advisers doesn't make it a brown story" (Herman n.p.). Instead, these scenes become palimpsests for which there is no tangible source.

One scene in particular features tapa prominently as a way of inserting the Disney brand into the story. After the instrumental cue for the first lyrical song of the film, a pair of women whip tapa over a line to dry revealing a design that is an "ethnic" characterization of the film's co-directors (see figure 3). (13) Multiple fan sites have identified this "Easter egg" (14) prefacing "Where We Are," which provides a montage through which the audience watches the eponymous character grow from a toddler to the young woman she will be in the film and learns some of the traditions of her island community. Such contextualization underlies the goal of Musker and Clements, as agents of the Disney corporation, to indelibly link their brand with Polynesian mythology. Anthropologists have observed, "[f]ine mats and tapa are never owned by an individual [...] they always represent the identity of a group" (Tcherkezoff 163). This group identity is situated around a directorial ego meant to mimic the artistic style of the culture which it is appropriating. So, not only is Disney able to solidify its version of Polynesian culture(s), but, simultaneously, the company reinforces a commitment to its brand through visual insertion.

The animators researching Moana traveled to several countries to create a patently Disney tableau. Production designers were proud of this fact; one told Variety, "[y]ou have to learn about things specifically, so that you can look at one tattoo and say, 'Oh, that's a Tahitian tattoo, and that one's from Tonga. At that point, you can start designing" (qtd. in Flores). The intentional fusion of nations separated by thousands of miles coalesces as a unified--foreign--culture. Casting choices echo this vague sense of "foreignness," particularly the characters who receive the most screen time, Moana and Maui. Scholars of Disney's medievalisms have noted Disney's non-European princesses speak "in an American voice in a foreign time and place ... Their voices, therefore, sound as an always-already emerging American culture that is depicted as an obvious truth" (Mitchell-Smith 219). The actress who voices Moana, Auli'i Cravalho, continues this tradition, while complicating it. A native of Hawai'i, the only US state whose annexation was initiated by coup d'etat, Cravalho is steeped in a culture that is both American and not. Like many citizens of the fiftieth state, Cravalho is multi-ethnic, identifying as Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Hawaiian, and Irish (Kanai n.p.). However, across multiple platforms, including The New York Times, NBC News, and US Weekly, she is identified solely as Native Hawaiian, a detail frequently included in the headline. There is an obvious bid toward legitimacy on the part of Disney in this marketing, but in so doing American media outlets are skirting a conversation about colonization within their own borders. Simultaneously, such language marks non-white American citizens as exotic rather than emblematic of a nation born of diversity. Likewise, Dwayne Johnson, voice of Maui, is simplified to Samoan, ignoring his African, Canadian, and Irish heritage (Scurlock n.p.). During a press conference for the film, Musker addressed his casting choices as a material of general Otherness, rather than representing diverse populations. He responded to a question about casting with the proclamation, "[f]or all of the voices in the movie, we were hoping to cast people from the islands to give it more authenticity" (Scurlock n.p.). This lack of specificity in casting decisions that spanned the Pacific from New Zealand to Hawai'i fuses all Pacific nations as a single, unnamed Other.

In the fundamental form of narrative colonization occurring within Moana, Disney conflates the rich heritages of multiple island peoples in such a way that anyone unfamiliar with the particulars of a given Polynesian tradition will walk away from the film with the impression that Samoan, Tongan, Maori, and Hawaiian cultures are, essentially, the same. While a singular cultural identity initially populated the Pacific islands, these migrations occurred over thousands of years and across thousands of miles, leading to the development of unique and diverse practices. Reflecting on the variance even in the Maui legends, customs had already evolved enough by the time the Victorians were chronicling Polynesia to focus on precise cultures, indicating where incongruences occur. Disney offers no such specificity.

Film, particularly animation, reaches mass audiences of all ages and is infinitely reproduced in soundtracks, at-home viewing, and, of course, commercial partnerships and products. Of oral narratives, Zipes observed that, once printed, they "became property (unlike the oral folk tale) and [were] regarded as a fixed text written by an author as proprietor. [They were] sold and marketed, and property rights were granted authors, collectors, and publishers" (Enchanted 19). Cinema takes this process even further, with the potential for greater saturation and, correspondingly, vaster fiscal potential. Given Disney's cultural saturation, it is not unreasonable to expect their version of Maui specifically, and Polynesian mythology generally, will have an even greater and more lasting impact than Victorian collections like Grey's considering its proliferation across media and merchandise.

This is not to say that Disney's colonization is more insidious than that of folklorists like Grey. Rather, just as industrialization impacted Victorians' access and distribution of Polynesian mythologies, so too has technological advancement and the evolution of global commerce broadened the cultural permeation of Disney narratives. Accordingly, beginning to understand the myriad ways in which Moana constitutes narrative colonialism necessitates a move through time, from the era in which the film is set to the origin of historical research on that period. Wells contends, "animation in the United States reveals what it is to be an American citizen, and how the 'melting pot' has figuratively and literally become the 'kaleidoscope' of nation and nationality. In enunciating itself, animation enunciates America: history, mythology, freedom" (America 17). In the case of Disney, lack of perspective leads to colonization, masquerading consumerism as cultural preservation, and, ultimately, appropriating a corrupted indigenous mythology into the American vernacular.


(1) I use Grey as prototype because his work has maintained one of the strongest legacies of any iteration of Maori mythology, serving as the source text for nearly every anthropologist studying Polynesia. For example, Roland B. Dixon, author of the Oceanic volume of The Mythology of All Races, depends almost exclusively on Victorian authors for Polynesian histories, citing Grey as a primary source. A dependence on Victorians generally and Grey in specific continues throughout the twentieth century. Recipient of multiple literary honors from Hawai'i arts and culture commissions, Katharine Luomala is the author of Maui-of-a-thousand-tricks, the definitive account of Maui's role in Hawaiian mythology. The book, financed by the famed Bishop Estate, reprints fifteen pages of Grey's account verbatim. Luomala ultimately concludes that, in Polynesian literature, Grey's version "holds a place comparable to that of Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur' in English literature. Sir George Grey is the Caxton to whom we owe gratitude for preserving this masterpiece of primitive literature which he translated fairly literally and felicitously from the native texts he assembled while Governor of New Zealand" (52).

(2) Aside from marking the northern and southernmost points in Polynesia, I use Hawai'i and New Zealand as touchstones for a number of reasons. Grey conducted his research, which provided source material for much of the surviving Maui mythology, in New Zealand. Further, Disney employed Maori actors and experts to provide "cultural authenticity." Hawai'i proves significant for other reasons. Perhaps most notably, Disney has a vested interest in associating Moana with the fiftieth state, from the perceived origin of the titular character's name to their resort on the leeward side of O'ahu, Aulani.

(3) Half-Maori writer/director Taika Waititi was tapped early-on to write Moana after being recommended by "people in the South Pacific that [Clements and Musker] talked to" (Sciretta). He wrote the first complete draft but was not contracted until the story had evolved to a rough outline centered around a character named Moana. Ultimately, Waititi left the project on his own accord to work on a film in New Zealand. Waititi jokes that the only line that remains from his original script is "EXT: OCEAN-DAY" (Hunt). His version was never released (or leaked) publicly, so it is unclear exactly how Moana's initial story progressed.

(4) Dixon aptly notes that when it appears "Biblical parallel [...] is far too close to permit us to regard the tales as other than local adaptations of missionary teaching" (40). Unfortunately, as I indicated previously, Grey's account is, for all intents and purposes, the chronicle of record.

(5) How this functions in Moana: 1) Not only is she the daughter of the chief, but the ocean identifies her as special. 2) She wants to sail even though no one is allowed to leave the island. 3) Her island is in jeopardy, so Moana sets off to find Maui and save her people. 4) She and Maui locate Te-Ka, and they are initially defeated. 5) Maui leaves Moana, who questions if she is able to defeat Te-Ka. Her faith is restored with the appearance of her ancestors. 6) Te-Ka is defeated; the long pause ends.

(6) Tamatoa is one of the rare cases in Moana where a character name has no directly identifiable correlation in Polynesian mythos.

(7) Once again, this version of Maui mythology can be traced to the Victorians. In Oceanic, Dixon cites Grey as a source for this narrative, who offers this story as a variation in his volume, as well as two of Grey's contemporaries, Stephenson Percy Smith and John White (42).

(8) This song is recorded in the Samoan language. An earlier song, "We Know the Way," with vocals by Lin-Manuel Miranda, features background lyrics in Tokelauan.

(9) Although I use the term "tapa," common across numerous Polynesian languages, it is worth noting that the directors refer to the material as "kapa" in their bonus features, reinforcing their fundamental, ongoing conflict between specificity and generality. The term "kapa" is specific to the Hawaiian Islands, further demonstrating Disney's investment in coupling Moana and their upscale O'ahu resort.

(10) Te Fiti's counterpart, Te-Ka, is described by characters as a "lava monster." Many (such as contributors to Decider, Odyssey, and Disney Wiki authors) have speculated this character is a derivation of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes.

(11) Disney originally planned to include Hine-nui-te-po as their antagonist. Introduced in "Unstoppable," a song cut before character audio was recorded, she is identified by name. The narrator explains, "Te-Po was a brutal land spirit/Legend says, she devoured Maui whole/and with the disappearance of Maui came the end of our voyages." To borrow Disney's terminology, this more "culturally authentic" version was replaced by a variation that could be easily copyrighted.

(12) The Oceanic Story Trust is "a group of pacific island advisors" who "helped advise and inform filmmakers of Pacific Island culture in an effort to make the film's cultural references and character representations" (Valerio).

(13) This is not the first film in which Clements and Musker inserted themselves. However, previously (in Aladdin, Hercules [1997], and The Princess and the Frog [2009]) they appear as background characters, rather than representations. One Disney site reports, "the appearance wasn't included in the film until late in production. 'It was about solving the puzzle of how to get us in the movie in some way,' Clements explained, admitting that it 'wasn't easy' because they also wanted to stay authentic to the film" (Wedemeyer n.p.).

(14) A "hidden" or undocumented image placed in a film or TV show that acts as an inside joke or reference to attentive and/ or repeat viewers. Later in the film, when Maui regains his magical fishhook, he tests the shape-shifting powers by trying to turn into a bird. Out of practice, he, instead, turns into a variety of other things: a bug, a shark, and a pig, and, notably, Sven, the reindeer from the preceding animated princess feature, Frozen (2013).


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Caption: Fig. 1: The tattooed body as the site of story, history and action.

Caption: Fig. 2: The children surrounded by tapa, in the telling of a tale.

Caption: Fig. 3: The Disney brand embedded. The film's co-directors depicted on tapa.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Author:Hodge, Amber Pualani
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Date:Jan 1, 2018

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