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The Journal Gazette

December 01, 2016 1:01 AM

'Moana' a hit, but character seen as offensive

NICK PERRY | Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Disney’s animated movie “Moana” debuted to critical acclaim and box office success over the Thanksgiving weekend, but some people in the South Pacific dislike how it depicts their culture.

Of particular concern is the movie’s portrayal of the demigod Maui, who is shown as enormous and egotistical, albeit with a good heart. That has been jarring for some in Polynesia, where obesity rates are among the highest in the world and where Maui is a revered hero in oral traditions.

Criticism from the Pacific has likely stung Disney, which went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the movie was culturally appropriate after being accused of racism in previous movies such as “Aladdin” (1992). For “Moana,” the filmmakers traveled to the Pacific and met with anthropologists, historians, fisherman and linguists, part of what they came to call the Oceanic Story Trust.

The fictional movie takes place 3,000 years ago in the islands of Polynesia, an area that includes Hawaii, Tonga and Tahiti. The star is 16-year-old Moana, voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, who goes on an ocean voyage with Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Disney suffered an early embarrassment when it decided to sell costumes of Maui, which featured brown shirts and long pants with full-body tattoos. Disney put the costumes in stores in time for Halloween, but quickly pulled them after critics compared them to blackface.

Producer Osnat Shurer, speaking by phone from Berlin where she was promoting the movie, said the moviemakers spent five years working closely with people in the Pacific to create what they believe is a beautiful representation.

“The costume fell short of that,” she said. “As different things grow around the movie, sometimes they don’t hit the same mark.”

Shurer said that when it came to figuring out the character of Maui, they found that different islands, villages, and even households, had different impressions of him.

“To some he’s a Superman, to others he’s a trickster,” she said.

In all the stories, she said, Maui was clearly larger than life. At first, however, they envisioned him as a little smaller, and bald. But he just seemed to grow as the movie progressed. She said animators try to find the essence of a character and then exaggerate those features.

“We knew we wanted him to be big and wanted him to be strong,” she said. “But he also moves with an incredible lightness.”

She said she hopes Pacific Islanders see the movie with an open mind.

“I feel good about the movie we’ve created and that it can withstand scrutiny,” she said. “All I can say is we did it with love and respect.”

In New Zealand, the movie does not debut until after Christmas. But Teresia Teaiwa, a senior lecturer in Pacific studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said she was concerned about the portrayal of Maui.

“Before Disney, I’ve seen a lot of other representations, and Maui is a hero,” she said. “I think it’s clear from the trailers I’ve seen that he’s a buffoon in Disney. It’s a dramatic shift. He was a trickster but not a buffoon.”