Misrepresentations of Pacific Islands culture in Disney movies

Story by DAYNA BAE

Cultural delineation in media frequently involves praises and criticisms at the same time. The Pacific Islands culture could not avoid such portrayal.

The Walt Disney Company Co., one of the major entertainment companies in the world, has depicted various cultures through its film productions.

As a result, Disney’s animated films gained large popularity and reputation for their diverse cultural representations. Up to the present, Disney has released numerous films including “Aladdin,” “Mulan” and “Pocahontas” based on different cultural backgrounds around the world.

With success of prior films, Disney released two animated films “Lilo and Stitch” and “Moana,” both of which describe Pacific Islands culture.

Two films depicted culture and stories of indigenous people in the Pacific Islands. The films starred a number of actual artists and professionals with Pacific Islands background.

Jacob Fitisemanu Jr., a clinical manager with Health Clinics of Utah and an associate instructor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah, said in an email interview, “Lots of Pacific Islander artists got into the production of the films and movies, and it became a good opportunity for them.”

The production and release of movies about the Pacific Islands not only aroused public attention about its mysterious and veiled culture, but also provided a good opportunity for Pacific Islanders working in the field of animation production.

“The major positive aspect of those films is the showcasing of the incredible potential and abilities of the Pacific Islander artists who lent their expertise and talents to the films,” Fitisemanu said.

According to the Guardian, the writer-director team of Disney’s “Moana” conducted a five-year research trip to Polynesia to interview elders and people living in Samoa, Tahiti and Fiji to have a better understanding about Pacific Islands cultures.

Despite the efforts of the research team, the public reactions to “Moana” varied. Some people showed optimism about the movie for displaying unique features of a minority culture, while others, reported the Guardian, criticized the movie for misrepresenting the culture and history of Pacific Islands.

Fitisemanu said, “Some people are very upset about Maui’s depiction and the way his legendary exploits are shown in the animation.” Maui is a main character who is a demigod in the movie. He also said that some people are uncomfortable with the fact that Maui is not put into context. According to Fitisemanu, Pacific Islands legends are in fact metaphors of actual historical events, unlike how the movie portrays them as mythological and fantastical ones.

Dr. Malie Arvin, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at the University of Utah, said, “The movie was not making sense to me, because Maui was described as a braggart, comical, and arrogant person in the movie.” She said that Pacific Islanders criticize the movie because many of the legendary stories of Maui’s are missing. “Maui has lots of stories such as slowing down the sun and fishing up islands,” Arvin said.

Another criticism of “Moana” deals with tourism. According to the Guardian, “Moana” caused a flurry of travel articles about the Pacific Islands triggered by the movie’s depiction of vibrant landscapes. Disney partnered with Hawaiian Airlines to promote the film and tourism catalyzed by “Moana” led to more ecological destruction of the Pacific Islands. The Guardian reported that the problem is due to the “merchandise and tourism machine [which] operates in direct opposition to the morals of Moana, a young girl who cares fiercely for her people and her island.”

According to the Huffington Post, one of the major flaws of the movie is its failure to mention Hina, a companion goddess of the god Maui. “In Polynesian lore, a goddess with a god creates symmetry that gives harmony and beauty to the story.” In this regard, “Moana” lacks a critical concept of “symmetry” in the story.

However, this is not Disney’s first time to be criticized for its misrepresentation of indigenous cultures. “Lilo and Stitch,” an animated film released in 2006, was also blamed for using inappropriate lyrics for a Hawaiian traditional song.

According to Arvin, “There is an aboriginal song about King Kalākaua, who was the last monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom before he was overthrown by the U.S. government.” The lyrics are a dedication to his honor, which is very respectful about his legacy. “However, ‘Lilo and Stitch’ just took that song and replaced his name with Lilo’s name. It was disrespectful and painful to see,” Arvin said. “And that was really depreciative of the history of Hawaii,” she added.

Although there are fierce criticisms toward Disney’s films about Pacific Islands culture, there are still positive voices that compliment the works for their valiant efforts and attempts.

Fitisemanu said, “If the Disney movie inspired Pacific Islanders to learn more by doing their own research, opening dialogue with family elders and cultural custodians, and increasing the sharing of our own stories with the next generation, then I think that is a good thing.”

To prevent and correct cultural misconceptions created by major film production and entertainment industry, Arvin said that there should be more Pacific Islands directors. “One of the most famous Pacific Islander directors is Taika Waititi. He is a Maori film director who directed Marvel’s ‘Thor: Ragnarok’,” Arvin said.