New Disney film ‘Moana’ promotes on-screen diversity

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Andy Harkness, art director of “Moana.” Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Rachel Duthie

Disney’s animated film “Moana” is starting a conversation far beyond the realm of Hollywood.

The movie, which opened Wednesday, introduces viewers to the first Polynesian Disney princess, depicted as being bold, self-reliant and rich within her culture.

The movie follows 16-year-old Moana, an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring adventure in order to save her people. Along her quest she meets the once-mighty demigod Maui, who guides Moana through the impossible in her journey of heroism and self-discovery.

Based on Polynesian folklore, the movie mimics authentic Pacific-Islander culture in every aspect of production, from the soundtrack to even the animation of the island’s geology.

The two leading voices of the movie also represent the cultures they are playing: Auli’i Cravalho, voice of Moana, is a young newcomer who was discovered in her homeland in the Island of O’ahu. Even Dwayne Johnson follows underneath his mother’s Polynesian descent when voicing Maui.

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker wanted to truly capture the cherished traditions of Oceania, and did not feel like this was possible without immersing themselves in the culture first. Before production, film producers traveled to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti to learn about the island’s way of life.

Andy Harkness, art director of environments for “Moana,” said they had never approached a movie “at this level” of attention and research before. He wanted to make sure his staff properly captured the beauty of Oceania.

“There is the color that you see in photographs, and then there is the color that you see when you’re actually there (in Tahiti). It is beautiful,” Harkness said. “When you go home, all the photographs look gray in comparison. It’s not like anything you remember. We’re trying to capture that feeling of actually being there for the viewers.”

The film has spurred nationwide media attention for it’s non-white female heroine, heavy cultural representation and absence of a love interest—factors typically not present in most major Hollywood films, according to Kent State Multicultural Director Talea Drummer.

“If actors and actresses of color who reflect the ethnic roles are given the opportunity to be represented, that is a great thing,” she said. “It is when that opportunity is nonexistent, is when it limits the ability for various ethnicities to be represented. This is not so much a quota as it is about a chance.”

According to industry estimates, “Moana” took the top spot at the Thanksgiving box office with $81.1 million over the five-day holiday week.

Rachel Duthie is a features correspondent, contact her at [email protected]