Pacific Media Watch

14 December 2016

GLOBAL: Disney’s Moana: First Pacific movie princess the real deal

The Moana trailer … “magical but also our reality.”

Vaimoana Tapaleao
AUCKLAND (New Zealand Herald / Asia Pacific Report / Pacific Media Watch): You know the film is something special when the opening scene brings a tear to the eye.

It is the call of song from an ancestor: the voice of a woman singing the language of our forefathers. Her chant and her words are the welcoming scene for Disney’s movie of the moment: Moana.

She’s been a long time coming, but Disney’s first Pacific princess has finally arrived.

This one is different, though. There are no ballgowns or diamond tiaras. Her hair is not straight, it’s wavy and the kind our mothers had to try to tame with the Pasifika version of gel: coconut oil.

This princess has a pig for a pet and, my gosh, her legs actually have calves.

Walking into the movie theatre to see this film was a weird experience.

As a Samoan woman, there was a sense of expectation for this film from the day Disney announced it was happening. There was also something close to dread: “Will they get it right?”

Te Vaka drums and vocals
As New Zealand Pacific band Te Vaka opened with a series of harmonies, drums and vocals unique to our part of the world, I began to breathe again.

A lot of controversy surrounded Moana, even before the girl who would lend her voice to her was cast.

People questioned the right a big-time international franchise had to create it.

When images of Maui, voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, were released, people slammed the depiction of the revered demi-god who looked like an obese ogre.

Maui fished up the islands, and then deep-fried them, the memes said.

Disney was accused of cultural appropriation when it released a kids’ costume, a brown jump-suit with tattoos, just before Halloween. Disney answered the only way that would calm the waters, with an apology and removing the costume from shelves.

The thing is, however, this is the first time in Disney history that the people on screen actually look like us.

Mirror image of our backyard
In an earlier review of the film, an overseas-based writer said it was somewhat unrealistic because the scenery appeared magical.

The writer most probably has never stepped foot in the Pacific, because the Polynesia depicted in the film is an animated yet mirror image of our backyard.

The glittering see-through ocean looks like the one the village kids splash in behind my mum’s family fale in Savai’i.

Tamatoa, Sina, Tui, Fiti and hell, even the chicken Hei Hei (Ho!) – are all names that belong to family and church members, or words I grew up hearing.

The siapo (tapa cloth) hanging in the fale are the same as ones at home and the pe’a tattoo worn by Moana’s father, Tui, is the same as one seen on old photos of my great-grandfather.

The way the lava meets the sea, the way the blow holes spit out jets of water near the beach and even the lushness of the plants, frangipani trees and teuila, or red ginger, yeah, it is magical, but it is also our reality.

As a kid, a lot of people would ask about the origins of my name.

“Where is it from?” The answer has always been: Samoa – but it’s also Tongan, Māori, Hawai’ian, Tahitian … actually, it’s from the whole of the Pacific.

In the same way, Moana belongs to us. She is not just another Disney princess. She is a daughter of the South Pacific, and for that, I am proud.

Vaimoana Tapaleao is The New Zealand Herald’s Pacific Affairs and People reporter. An award-winning journalist, she is also a graduate of Auckland University of Technology and won the Pacific Media Centre’s Storyboard Award for diversity reporting in 2007. The article was first published by the Herald and has been republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission.

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