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Moana, Culture Warrior

Having steeled its new Polynesian adventure against charges of whitewashing and appropriation, Disney has charted a new course for making Hollywood movies


The blessing is that the island offers all the food, shelter, and comfort that Moana could ever want. The curse is that Moana’s father, the chief, says she can never sail beyond the reef, which forms the official perimeter of her village’s outreach and imagination.

In the new Disney film Moana, our hero — a young woman who will succeed her overprotective father as the chief of a small island called Motunui — sets sail to track down the shipwrecked demigod Maui. Moana must persuade Maui to return home with her, as the green island has succumbed to a dark plague that gradually turns it to black lava dust. Moana’s roundabout journey of self-discovery is less about personal growth — honestly, she doesn’t have much of a character arc — than it is about the importance of carrying on honorable traditions through successive generations.

As an original story that incorporates choice bits of Pacific island culture, Moana is not a faithful dissemination of any single Polynesian myth. It’s a cartoon movie with a blended mythology and simple themes of heroism and heritage. But it’s also a pivotal moment in the fictional Disney kingdom’s expansion to every hemisphere. In its quest for global conquest, Disney faces unique challenges of representation and deference at every stop along the way.

Disney’s early legacy is entangled with homegrown racial tensions and wartime xenophobia, much of it starring the beloved Donald Duck.

Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the U.S. government commissioned Disney to produce training videos (with a blend of animation and live-action footage) for the armed forces. Disney also produced short propaganda cartoons for wide release. In Der Fuehrer’s Face, Donald Duck suffers a nightmare of what his life would be like if he were a munitions grunt in Nazi Germany. In Commando Duck, he clumsily sends a waterfall crashing onto a Japanese air base. During the war, Japan was often the butt of Disney’s cartoon nationalism. During America’s post-war occupation of Japan, however, anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka incorporated principles of Disney’s contemporary character designs to create the contemporary anime character aesthetic. In Japan now, Disney films greatly outsell homegrown animation, including Studio Ghibli releases, at the box office. (In 1996, Disney purchased the global distribution rights for all current and future Studio Ghibli films.) Disney’s massive popularity in Japan is a case study of the studio’s general influence abroad over the past century.

Disney has been producing animated films since 1923, and it’s been a worldwide box office powerhouse since the 1950s (with the likes of Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan). But only in the 1990s did the studio start staging blockbuster tales in corners of the world beyond England, France, and vaguely European antiquity. In November 1992, Disney released Aladdin, a musical fantasy about genies and magic carpets based in part on the Middle Eastern tale of Aladdin found in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The Lion King, a tribal succession drama set against a backdrop inspired by a Disney research team’s impressions of Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya, would follow less than two years later. Disney would push further east with Mulan, a fantastical account of the ancient Chinese warrior Hua Mulan, released in 1998. These are all cartoon movies about “exotic,” far-flung heroes, and, among millennials, they have largely displaced older films such as Pinocchio and Bambi as the beating heart of the Disney canon.

Aladdin’s Jasmine, Princess of Agrabah, is an American character, and Aladdin is very certainly an American film. (Aladdin directors Ron Clements and John Musker, both white American men, are also both directors of Moana.) There’s a sense in which cartoons — even cartoons about specific ethnic heritages that might be largely unfamiliar to their target audience — can flatten perceptions of foreignness. At worst, this industrialization of heritage and culture is precisely what opponents of cultural appropriation mean to describe by the term “whitewashing.” But Disney is also beset with expectations, often espoused from the very same corners of pop-culture criticism, that the company must diversify its stories and characters to better reflect the pluralism of Disney’s vast audience at home and abroad. These representation debates are tricky terrain, and Disney has only recently begun to navigate the landscape better than its admittedly smaller and younger industry peers.

In August, the animation studio Laika released Kubo and the Two Strings, a beautiful stop-motion movie about the young, one-eyed son of a lost samurai. An innovative film from the producers of Coraline, Kubo earned critical attention, for better and worse: It was praised for its character models and set designs, which were all meticulously hand-crafted, but criticized for its largely white creative team and voice cast (Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey), telling a Japanese story with Japanese characters.

The diversity concerns about Kubo’s cast and crew caused a predictable backlash that Laika, an 11-year-old studio, was perhaps just too young and too small to have anticipated — though, I must admit, cutting the studio that much slack feels like letting it off the hook entirely. In any case, Kubo earned $12.6 million in its opening weekend. By comparison, the Disney-produced Moana, on 2.5 times the budget of Laika’s Kubo, grossed $56.6 million domestically in its opening Thanksgiving weekend.

For Disney, the commercial stakes of these representation debates are much higher. And given the company’s tremendous resources, Disney has few plausible excuses for mismanaging these concerns. There is no entertainment studio with broader global regard than Disney, and the company’s dominance has clearly informed its commercial interests in diversity of representation. (Here it’s also important to distinguish between Walt Disney Animation Studios, which produced Moana, and the Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios, which has carved a rather different, sentimentalist niche with films such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc.)

The voice of Moana, actor Auli’i Cravalho, grew up in Hawaii, and her racial background includes Chinese, Puerto Rican, and native Hawaiian heritage. Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock, who voices Maui, is black and Samoan. Apart from the principal cast and the core creative team, Clements and Musker recruited several native experts and practitioners to consult on the development of the characters and story. In a recent Vanity Fair article, these consultants — collectively known as the Oceanic Trust — say they provided extensive and occasionally harsh feedback on erroneous or distasteful elements of the film that Clements and Musker ultimately scrapped, such as Maui’s original character design, which depicted the demigod as short and bald. For Pasifika people wary of Disney’s interest in the region, the Oceanic Trust represented a proactive and inclusive framework for considerate representation.

Clements and Musker’s recruitment of the Oceanic Trust represents a great evolution of the defensive strategy that Disney deployed 70 years ago for its 1946 release of Song of the South. That film, based on the white author Joel Chandler Harris’s popular anthology of black Southern folk tales, was Walt Disney’s attempt to capitalize upon a phenomenally popular literary franchise with a mix of friendly critter animation and live-action portrayal (by James Baskett) of Uncle Remus.

Disney publicist Vern Caldwell anticipated a universal backlash (among black and white moviegoers) to the depiction of Uncle Remus, and the studio went so far as to screen Song of the South for segregated Southern test audiences in advance to assess whether certain scenes should be cut to allay the potential for discord. “Between the negro haters and the negro lovers,” Caldwell wrote to the film’s producer, “there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial.”

Studio staff eventually asked several black consultants to review later drafts of the movie, and those consultants privately resented that Disney didn’t solicit their input until after the script was mostly finalized. The NAACP condemned the film upon its release, citing “the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship” created by a film where Uncle Remus shucks on a cartoon plantation. Song of the South has grossed about $65 million in its commercial lifetime, including ticket sales from Disney’s last theatrical re-release of the film in 1986. Uninterested in renewing yet another wave of controversy surrounding the film (despite some pronounced consumer demand for a re-release that the company has lately denied), Disney has never released Song of the South on Blu-ray or DVD. Since 2001, the movie’s been out of print.

In matters of appropriation and representation in pop culture, the learning curve is steep, and Disney has survived the climb if only because it’s worked the curve for nearly a century. These are lessons in progress, to be sure; the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, starring the black Southern heroine Tiana, spurred some discomfort with the protagonist’s original name and circumstances — she was initially written as a young maid named Maddy — and the racial ambiguity of the movie’s fair-skinned Prince Naveen. Soon, we’ll have a live-action remake of Aladdin to behold, directed by Guy Ritchie, and inevitably judged to some extent on how well the casting choices reflect the quasi-Arabian setting.

In 2016, the cast of Moana is diverse to a degree that at least strives to reflect the myths, histories, and societies that the filmmakers have chosen to represent in good faith. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that the finished product is unimpeachably authentic; plenty of advocacy groups and online activists have insisted that Disney’s depictions of Maui, both in the film itself and in the company’s costume merchandising, are offensive, and that Disney’s interest in the Pacific islands amounts to neocolonial consumption, plain and simple. There are no shortcuts around capitalism, just as there are no shortcuts around identity politics, either. Moana meets the backlash halfway, which is much further than many lesser studios have dared to sail.