Will Disney Get Race and Culture Right With Moana?

MOANAEarlier this week, Disney Animation Studios announced a late-2016 release date for its 56th animated feature, Moana, a musical comedy-adventure that will transport viewers to the South Seas to a world of sea creatures, underworlds and Polynesian folklore. Moana will be Disney’s first-ever Pacific Islander princess and second protagonist from the region (second only to Lilo from Lilo & Stitch). She comes in the wake of four white princesses (Rapunzel, Merida, Anna and Elsa) who, while beloved, have done little to shift Disney’s racial bias.

Set 2,000 years ago in ancient Oceana, the film will center on Moana, a 14-year-old girl who Disney describes as “spirited,” “passionate” and “indomitable.” The eponymous princess will undertake an “impossible mission to fulfill her ancestors’ quest,” which involves teaming up with demigod Maui and searching for a legendary island. Beyond that teaser, Disney has kept mum on the film’s details.

While Moana features plot devices and characters that directors John Musker and Ron Clements know well—water wonders, musical hits, princesses and sidekicks—their handling of cultural representation has occasionally put them in rough waters: In The Little Mermaid (1989), Ursula (a villain we love to hate) is othered by her non-conformance to Western standards of beauty. Living in an underwater world of bikini-clad mermaid princesses, her obese and butch presentation visually positions her as an outsider. In Aladdin (1992), a similar story of “otherness” unfolds. The entire cast appears whitewashed in a Middle Eastern context, with the exception of Jafar—the film’s villain—who has a darker skin tone and stronger Arabic features. Such consternation is even more exacerbated in The Princess and the Frog (2009): Naveen, the prince character, has lighter skin than the other characters (including both Princess Tiana and the villain, Dr. Facilier). It’s a plot formulation reeking of “white man saves brown woman from brown man.”


Yikes. The good news is Musker and Clements are taking preemptive steps to avoid their previous failings. Borrowing a strategy from Frozen—which sent its production designer and art production team to Norway to acquaint themselves with the film’s setting—Musker and Clements have undertaken a similar research approach by traveling to the South Seas. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Clements recounts their two trips:

When we visited [the] islands, John and I were especially interested in meeting people who lived on islands where they had grown up surrounded by an ocean. We wondered how that might effect your point of view. … We learned all kinds of things that we didn’t know. We learned how the sea and the land are one and the same. How these people think of the ocean as something that unites the islands, not something that separates them, and then we learned about the great migration and how the people of the islands take great pride in the fact that their ancient ancestors invented this way of navigation called dead reckoning which involved studying the stars and the currents.

While their research strategy quelled some of my initial unease, the duo’s draw to the South Pacific seems to stem from exoticism rather than a genuine desire to learn. In the same interview, Musker explains how he “grew up reading the novels of Melville and Conrad, and the South Seas, the exotic world that a lot of their stories are set in, was extremely intriguing.” This exoticism seems to propel the film (rather than a genuine desire to portray Moana as a nuanced, complex character who happens to come from a different cultural heritage than the two white directors).

The good news is that even though Musker and Clements have a tendency to insert a Westernized, Eurocentric narrative into an “other” setting without incorporating the “other’s” cultural differences into the film’s seams—think Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog—a native New Zealander is responsible for the Moana script. According to Film Divider, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and comedy-award winner Taika Waititi wrote the film, a detail Waititi confirms via Twitter. Waititi, a descendent of the Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe, can hopefully shed light on Polynesia’s indigenous peoples in a nuanced and informed manner.

While his addition to the team is certainly a step forward, there’s still a large demographic missing from Moana’s production team: women. With the exception of producer Osnat Shurer, the team behind Disney’s girl-centric princess adventure is stacked with men. (Face palm.)

This gender breakdown is unfortunately common for Disney. Frozen was the first Walt Disney film to have a woman director (Jennifer Lee), and while it’s appalling that Lee was the first woman in this role, her vision and direction greatly shaped the final product. Chris Buck, co-director of Frozen, credits Lee with “creating some of the best female characters we’ve ever done, the most fully realized, the most three-dimensional. These aren’t female characters that are put up on a pedestal; these are real, gritty, flawed females that are just human.” Fancy that: a women director creates more rounded, complex women characters.

While Disney’s track record has given us many reasons to approach Moana with caution, the film is encouraging for many reasons: Firstly, Moana offers another representation of a princess of color—a detail not to be taken for granted or overlooked. The film also reestablishes Walt Disney Animation’s commitment to girl-centric narratives, a genre the company shied away from in the earlier 2000s (think Atlantis the Lost Emperor, Treasure Planet and Brother Bear). Based on the recent box-office success of princess stories, this return is likely financially driven.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that even as Disney gradually shifted back to girl protagonists, the girls didn’t get credit in their respective titles. Compared to Disney’s early films (think Snow White and Cinderella), the titles of Tangled, Brave and Frozen all mask the heroes’ gender. Since the early 2000s, this gender neutrality in Disney titles has become common, allowing publicity campaigns to target boys and girls. With Moana, Disney is making a bold thematic (and financial) decision: assuming both boys and girls will be drawn to the plot and the characters of the film, regardless of the protagonist’s gender. This move is empowering to Moana and to little girls everywhere, as if Disney is saying, “Your story matters and will not be defined by your gender.”

With two years to go, Musker and Clements have time to improve on their past blunders. We recommend adding more women to the central planning team (go figure) and continuing to learn from Polynesian culture rather than using it as a pretty backdrop and merely dropping in a stereotypical story. In the meantime, we’ll wait impatiently for Moana, who producer Osnat Shurer calls a “kick-ass, feisty, interesting female protagonist,” to appear on our screens. OK team, all hands on deck.

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Photo courtesy of the Disney Blog.



Brianna Kovan graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English. She is currently an editorial intern at Ms.


  1. While I think Disney is making more female characters, it is very true that few cultures other than white are widely represented in their films and television shows. It seems the world is ready for white female leads as in Once upon a time. However the subjects are always knocking women in many ways. In Frozen Anna is very young to be getting married. All the leads are white, Anna, Elsa, Emma, Snow, Belle, Ariel and the list goes on and on. Also what’s with every girl is a princess? sorry 99% of us are not. I do feel like they are trying for these strong female roles, for example in maleficent it was unconditional love that saved her, not a prince, but it’s only because they see it as a cash cow.

  2. Taika Waititi is going to need an online support group

  3. While I completely agree with the deconstruction of Disney films and their lack of true female role models – I know that Taika Waititi will have given a strong and believable screenplay that is undoubtedly true and appropriate in upholding our values and cultural identity.

    The films he has created to date are all incredibly amazing and relatable. With all other concerns to the side that Disney will somehow mess up our culture and romanticise it – knowing that Taika gave them the idea and the screenplay makes me feel a whole lot more accepting of the film.

    If Disney are smart – they will immerse themselves in our complex culture and realise that one story will not be enough to truly encapsulate who Moana is. Hopefully Maui is used even more but as he is the most cheeky and clever of all of our ancestors – it will be hard for Moana to not be overshadowed by him. Hopefully Moana can be the role model that our girls can look up to. Disney have a lot more than financials to worry about!

  4. Still waiting for a spanish princess. Or at least a story that sets place in a south American’ Caribbean country. Aside from the Emperor New Groove (Peru) no story line by Disney is in a Spanish speaking country.

  5. I think the role/portrayal of Disney characters are shifting. Most of the Disney princess’ were reliant on a MAN or a PRINCE CHARMING to save/rescue them. Leaving the princess powerless as to her own future, waiting for a prince to come to her aid! For example-Snow white, Cinderella, Rapunzel. The newer Disney characters seem much more INDEPENDENT and rarely rely on a man/prince as did the princess’ of the past. This rebellious nature is portrayed in more recent movies like Brave & Frozen. The new age of Disney women are strong, fearless and in control of their OWN destiny, they are not WAITING to be rescued! THAT is progress!

  6. Sgt Kalepe says:

    Nope they already got it wrong! Sadly after viewing the promo, the Demi God Maui, or In Samoa we call him Ti’iti’i, looks very Obese, but in our Polynesian Legends he is described as strong, handsome, Tino manaia in Samoan, meaning Great Psyche, body and handsome. All our Polynesian Legends he is depicted as a Strong and well built Hero.. But Disney has portrayed him as very Obese, disguised it with his tribal tattoos, which they did not research as well. Out of all the Hero characters they portray us Pacific Islanders as big obese people..Disney do your research.. Moana should have followed the lilo and Stitch characters, they look more hamo.

    • Jyn Carroll says:

      Idk I can get ovevthe accents simply because they are not necessarily supposed to be speaking English we just need to understand them without having everything translated. There was a main character in mulan who had a Yankee accent. They don’t need foreign accents because they wouldn’t sound foreign to each other. Its more to convey the story to the audience.

  7. Just saw bits and pieces of the trailer and they speak American English!!! I grew up in the US myself but have enough Kiwi friends who are also Maori for me to feel that seeing a Polynesian character speaking in a completely American accent sounds completely mismatched…! or am I mistaken? do other regions in Polynesia have American accents? so that’s another aspect they could have had more sensitivity about when desining/planning their characters…

  8. ok, so on second thoughts Hawaii would be included here so maybe the American accent isn’t too off, but it still doesn’t sound completely right to me…

  9. Mike Hawk says:

    Moana is straight up Samoan just like every Polynesia race is as well

  10. I am just in love with Disney and all its princesses. but, I am still desperately waiting for a Jamaican princess. (DESPERATELY).

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