October 20, 2016 4:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

When Disney meets remote island cultures

MICHAEL FIELD

A Polynesian family in Tonga (Photo by Michael Field)

Hollywood's mighty Walt Disney is about to hit South Pacific beaches, and there is edgy debate over whether it will be a celebration of Polynesian culture or a tsunami-like commercial and cultural disaster.

Three years after its mega-blockbuster "Frozen," Disney is gearing up for the premier of another animated feature, "Moana." A retelling of the Polynesian creation legend and voyaging stories, the film is due to hit theaters on Nov. 23.

But while Anna and Elsa, the sisters at the heart of "Frozen," were fairytale princesses, Polynesians are real people, and there is anxiety that "Moana" might do to Polynesia's nations and territories what comedian Sasha Baron Cohen's "mockumentary" "Borat" did for Kazakhstan and its 17 million people in 2006: turn them into a laughingstock.

There are only 6 million Polynesians, comprising Maoris, Samoans, Tongans, Tahitians and others, scattered on islands in a triangle from Hawaii in the north to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, in the east and New Zealand, or Aotearoa, in the south.

Cohen reckoned any publicity from "Borat" would be good for a neglected little country off the beaten path. But self-confident Polynesians -- who feel they are at the center of the universe -- give off the sense that they have been alone for so long they do not need that kind of outside help.

Polynesia has been my stomping ground for most of my life. My children are Polynesian, and my youngest granddaughter, 9 months old, is Tui'ono, a chiefly name from Savai'i, Samoa's big island, regarded by locals as the "cradle of Polynesia" (to the irritation of neighboring Tonga).

When in 1978, American anthropologist Margaret Mead died, I was working for then-Prime Minister of Samoa, Tupoula Efi. In her 1928 book "Coming of Age in Samoa," Mead had defined Polynesia and Samoa as a place of teenage sexual freedom. Samoans were offended, so when Tupoula was asked to send a condolence message to Mead's family, he declined. He could not glorify someone who had libeled his people for 50 years.

Polynesia has long suffered Western tropical paradise parodies, verging on the racist, such as the Broadway musical and film "South Pacific," and various iterations of "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Polynesia was, according to legend, created by Maui, who was said to be able to stop the sun and who fished up islands out of the sea. In New Zealand, there are calls to restore the old name of the North Island: "Te Ika a Maui," or "Maui's fish."

Polynesia began with the first people arriving at Tonga and Fiji around 3,000 years ago from Taiwan. Long before Europeans sailed the Pacific, Polynesians spread out in deliberate, heroic voyages.

Concern over the impact of Disney's "Moana," however, comes from a Polynesian sense that they are not taken seriously. The worst of that was in 1947 when Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl used his Kon Tiki expedition to prove, as he put it, that South Americans had colonized Polynesia. The reality was the reverse: Polynesians made it to America long before Christopher Columbus.

Disney is attempting to avoid cultural misappropriation charges by stacking the film with Polynesians. The voice of the 16-year-old star, Moana (a common name meaning "ocean or wide sea"), is played by Hawaiian Auli'i Cravalho. Maui is voiced by Samoan actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Disney says it understands Polynesian sensitivities, with directors Ron Clements and John Musker making numerous trips there to learn about the folklore. "In Tahiti, one of the elders said 'We've been swallowed by your culture. Just this once, can you be swallowed by our culture?'" Clements said.

The production of "Moana" has already stumbled with a row over Maui's obesity. Then Disney launched a wearable version of Maui, a skinlike, tattooed catsuit for children. In the resulting "Polyface" uproar, Disney withdrew it.

Pacific expert Teresia Teaiwa of Victoria University of Wellington says the "Moana" debates have "heated up intensely," but 22-year-old Samoan visual artist and writer Lauren Ulugia says Disney has "invested real time and effort to make this a story that will be widely cherished across all cultures, ages and circumstance."

Outside Polynesia, adjectives like "tiny" and "paradise" are regularly applied to the region. Polynesians use humor to deflect this. My favorite line is about a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer trying to persuade Samoans how insignificant Samoa was by showing them the small specks on the map. The matai, or chief, looked closely and then said to the volunteer: "So who drew this map?"

With the ocean as their highway and home, and Maui and Moana as their ancestors, Polynesians would do well to guard their treasures and their perspective -- and hope that Hollywood gets it right this time.

Michael Field is a New Zealand-based writer and author of "Swimming with Sharks: Tales from the South Pacific Frontline" (Penguin).

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