Are Moana Fans Taking The Movie’s Ties To Polynesian Myth Too Literally?

Hailed as a triumph, Disney’s Moana is the first representation of Polynesian culture in mainstream media; critics say it “pays tribute” to the myths and beginnings of Pacific Islanders. Since its release in 2016, the movie, which ties together several legends about the demigod Maui as he helps the princess restore the Heart of Te Fiti, has racked up quite the fan following – and with many fans comes many theories. One theory posits that Moana is actually a demigod – and that Maui is her father. Why? Because the myths say so. But could it be that the whitewashing of Polynesian culture in the film has lead fans to take the myths too literally?


The theory

Unlike Frozen’s Elsa, Moana is just a mortal – no magic here. With simple determination, curiosity, bravery and an unexplained friendship with the ocean, Moana defeats the lava monster Te Ka, all the while realising exactly where she belongs, where she comes from and who she is meant to be. But a video by The Film Theorists on Youtube questions how a mere human could achieve all this, even with help from a demigod. Why did the ocean choose Moana to restore Te Fiti’s heart? And why can she enter the realm of the monsters, a place no mortal can survive? There was also that major feat where she parted the ocean like something out of the bible.

As The Film Theorists point out, while the parting of the ocean does look a lot like the Christian story, it makes more sense to draw parallels between Polynesian beliefs for a movie like Moana – a film that, as Disney advertised extensively, was advised by Oceanic historians, linguists, archaeologists, tattoo artists, fishermen and others to make sure it was an authentic representation of the culture. And what do you know? One Hawaiian legend tells of a god in human form named Kane’apua, who was able to raise rocks and part the sea to form a safe passage across. Maui clearly doesn’t have this ability, otherwise he would have escaped his island exile eons ago, so it seems more likely Moana is the one with the power here. She orders the ocean ‘let her come to me’, and it obeys.

Oh, and another thing – Moana means ‘ocean’ or ‘deep sea’ in many pacific languages, from Maori to Hawaiian. While the sea could have chosen Moana because they had the same name, The Film Theorists say it makes more sense that Disney is following the Pacific Islands tradition of gods and goddesses being named for the thing they were known for. Pele, or ‘volcano’, is god of fire; Tawhiri is the god of wind and storms, whose name translates to ‘wind’; and Rangi, the god of the sky, literally means sky.

The third piece of evidence The Film Theorists present is Moana’s family. She has a particularly close relationship with her grandmother, Tala, who encourages her to seek out Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti. In Tagalog myth, Tala is the goddess of the stars – and Moana’s kooky gramma just so happens to use the stars to point Moana in the right direction to find Maui’s island. When she returns to talk some confidence into Moana, she appears under a glorious night sky, and her ghostly body – and the boats that sail the water as she retrieves the heart of Te Fiti from the ocean depths – seem to be made of stars. But the major link to Polynesian myth is Moana’s mother’s name – Sina.

In one version of a Samoan myth called Sina and the Eel, beautiful maiden Sina is married to Maui, the trickster demigod. An eel falls in love with her, following her from stream to stream as she bathes. Eventually becoming scared and angry, Sina tells her husband, who kills the eel and buries it, giving birth to the first ever coconut tree. Moana’s mother’s name, unspoken in the movie but plainly written in the credits, is Sina. And she’s associated throughout with coconuts, seen showing Moana how to harvest them in the opening song. To top it off, in ‘You’re Welcome’, Maui references the myth of Sina and the Eel when he sings ‘I killed an eel, I buried its guts, sprouted a tree, now you’ve got coconuts’.

The last tie to family is Moana’s pig, Pua, who doesn’t really do anything in the movie. He doesn’t go on the boating adventure beyond the reef with Moana, he doesn’t have a personality like Hei Hei the chicken, yet he isn’t eaten by the people of Motonui, even though they have no fish and their crops are failing. According to The Film Theorists, he has a mythological link.

In some versions of the myth of Sina and Maui, the couple had a child called Kamapua’a, a son who looked like a pig. Pua sounds an awful lot like a nickname for Kamapua’a. Could it be that Pua is actually Moana’s brother? A brother by their father, Maui the demigod, whose blood runs through Moana’s veins, explaining why the ocean chooses Moana to return the heart of Te Fiti, how Moana can enter the realm of the monsters without dying, and gives Moana the power to walk across the ocean floor? Maybe, maybe not. The Film Theorists’ wrap their videos with: ‘But hey, that’s just a theory. A film theory.’

But the very existence of such a film theory begs the question of whether the representation of Polynesian culture and myth in Moana was really so authentic. While film critics saw the movie as a tribute to the spirit and history of Pacific Islanders, scholars are divided as to whether it’s actually a white person’s story, where myths and identities are appropriated for the white audience. Does the theory above suggest fans are taking the Disney version of the Maui myth too literally, treating it as if it’s the gospel truth, and disregarding real Polynesian legends?


The criticism

In an article written for the Smithsonian magazine, Professor Doug Herman discusses how Moana holds up against cultural truths. He writes that historically the story of Moana’s people pausing in their seafaring and then resuming thousands of years later fits with a large mystery in the South Pacific islands’ voyaging timeline. Sometimes called ‘The Long Pause’, when Polynesians took a 2,000-year break between colonising Western Polynesia, the islands closest to Australia and New Guinea, and the islands of Central and Eastern Polynesia. Nobody knows the reason for The Long Pause, or why they started voyaging again – but Disney’s Moana provides a possible reason by tying it to the myth of Maui.

But culturally, according to Herman, there is much to criticise. Maui is a heroic figure found throughout much of Polynesia and credited with performing a range of feats for the good of humankind. Traditionally, Maui is depicted as a lithe teenager on the verge of manhood. But the Maui in the movie is illustrated as a huge buffoon and comes off as sort of stupid – as the comic relief in the film, and with the very recognisable voice of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Maui’s character and personality deviates from traditional myths by being over the top. Critics have also noted that the depiction of Maui “perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight.”

Herman criticizes, with a quote from Tongan cultural anthropologist Tēvita O. Kaʻili, that traditional Maui myths feature a companion goddess, Hina, who is completely omitted from the story in Moana, which misrepresents the culture by missing out a crucial theme in Polynesian myth: balance.

“In Polynesian lores, the association of a powerful goddess with a mighty god creates symmetry which gives rise to harmony, and above all, beauty in the stories,” Ka’ili says. Herman points out that it was Hina who enabled Maui to do many of the feats he “uncharacteristically brags about” in his introductory song ‘You’re Welcome’.

As The Film Theorists say, coconuts are a major trope in the movie, which the Youtubers associate with Moana’s mother, Sina, who shows Moana how to harvest them – and which links to the theory of Sina being Maui’s wife. But Herman says the coconut depiction in the movie is “tiresome and cliche” – the happy natives with coconuts. “Coconuts as the essential component of Pacific Island culture became a comedy staple on the 1960s television series “Gilligan’s Island,” if not before. They are part of the shtick of caricatures about Pacific peoples,” Herman writes.

The other major problem is the representation of the Kakamora, the pesky coconut pirates that try to steal the Heart of Te Fiti from Moana. Disney describes them as “a diminutive race donning armor made of coconuts. They live on a trash-and-flotsam-covered vessel that floats freely around the ocean.” Moana’s Kakamora are mean, relentless at getting what they want, and full of sophisticated technology that presumably doesn’t exist at the film’s setting, but at the same time, they are kind of silly.

Herman’s issue with the Moana’s Kakamora is that these are a real people that have actual cultural roots.

“They are a legendary, short-statured people of the Solomon Islands. Somewhat like the menehune of Hawai‘i, and bear no resemblance to the Disney knock-off. “Coconut” is also used as a racial slur against Pacific Islanders as well as other brown-skinned peoples. So depicting these imaginary beings as “coconut people” is not only cultural appropriation for the sake of mainstream humor, but just plain bad taste,” Herman says.

Moana poster

The media praised Disney’s team for creating a Pacific Islander advisory board named the Oceanic Story Trust, with the writers spending a significant amount of time learning about the histories and day-to-day life of Pacific Islanders. But along with this came the assumption that everything in the movie is culturally accurate, and according to myth – thereby fans are taking the myth of Maui literally to create a fan theory that also appropriates parts of the myth for their purposes.

Herman quotes Pacific Island scholar Vicente Diaz from Guam, who critiques Disney’s exploitation of Native cultures: “Who gets to authenticate so diverse a set of cultures and so vast a region as Polynesia and the even more diverse and larger Pacific Island region that is also represented in this film? And what, exactly does it mean that henceforth it is Disney that now administrates how the rest of the world will get to see and understand Pacific realness, including substantive cultural material that approaches the spiritual and the sacred.”

The issue is that Disney, in creating a story based on Polynesian myth, and in attempting to celebrate and validate native cultures, does in fact dictate the “realness” of Polynesia to the rest of the world. Fans of the movie take the depictions of Maui at face value, which in turn perpetuates the further appropriation of Polynesian myth through theories like that presented by The Film Theorists. In researching mythology – since Disney itself did in the creation of the plot – fans take parts of the myth and history that fits in with the images already presented in the movie and leave the truth behind.

Herman summarises by saying: “In short, Moana is not an Indigenous story, as New Zealand educator Tina Ngata points out. ‘Having brown advisers doesn’t make it a brown story. It’s still very much a white person’s story.’”

But as one commentator wrote, isn’t Herman being a bit too picky?

Whylime responded to Herman’s critique by saying: “Is Moana perfect? No. But making a movie like this 100% accurate is pretty much impossible, especially when you’re trying to depict a mythological character who is important to the diverse mix of cultures that make up Polynesia. In some stories he’s a human, in others a demigod. In some versions Maui is married to Hina. In others, she is his mother. Sometime’s she’s his sister. The Tongan version of Maui is going to be slightly different from the Hawaiian version, which will be different from the Samoan version, which will be different from the Maori version etc.,” Whylime wrote.

“Disney has probably just introduced Polynesian mythology and Maui to millions of children (and probably a lot of adults). If this gets even some of those children interested in learning more about Maui, or wayfinding, or Polynesian culture, isn’t that a good thing? Disney just made the movies out there a little more diverse and gave millions of children heroes that aren’t another white princess or prince.”

Moana co-creators John Musker and Ron Clements have made a point of saying it’s just a story. It’s not attempting to be an accurate representation of the mythology, it’s an amalgamation of many stories, inspired by legends, to create one coherent plot that celebrates the spirit of the ocean and the history of a people.

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