The trailer for “Moana,” the latest princess movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios, was shown during a commercial break for the Tony Awards telecast. With several voice actors, a screenwriter and a composer of Polynesian descent — not to mention “Hamilton” cast members Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the cast and composing music for the film, respectively — the film appeared to be in tune with the evening’s progressiveness.
Still, several prominent Polynesians, including politicians, media experts and artists, have voiced discontent with one element of the film set for release in November: the depiction of Maui, a Polynesian demigod. In the film, Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) accompanies the titular navigator (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) on her journey to help her family. Maui is also prominently featured in the film’s trailer.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Marie Alohalani Brown, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s department of religion who is part Hawaiian, said that, in Hawaiian mythology, Maui isn’t seen as a “god” in the Judeo-Christian sense. Instead, as a “demigod,” he has both godly and human characteristics, and is viewed as an ancestor to the exalted, ruling class of Hawaii. In one of Hawaii’s most prominent creation myths, Maui is known for passing on the secret of fire to humans, drawing the Hawaiian archipelago together and slinging the sun so that it moves more slowly. He’s a cultural hero and a trickster.
The common thrust of the criticisms is that the character is not conveyed to be strong or serious, and most complaints center on Maui’s physical appearance. On June 22, Jenny Salesa, a member of New Zealand’s parliament, posted a meme to her Facebook page that compared the attractiveness of three Polynesian actors (including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who voices Maui) to the “half pig half hippo” caricature of Maui in “Moana.”
“When we look at photos of Polynesian men & women from the last 100-200 years, most of our people were not overweight and this negative stereotype of Maui is just not acceptable,” Salesa wrote.
That same day, Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu posted a similar meme to his Facebook page. Another critic was Will Ilolahia, from the Pacific Media Association, who described the obese-looking Maui to the Waatea News as “typical American stereotyping.”
Others, however, read Maui’s size in the film not as obesity, but as strength. Samoan artist Michel Mulipola posted an image to Twitter and Facebook that deconstructed the depiction of Maui and the film’s other characters. “Thick build represents power and strength,” he wrote in an annotation.
Of a similar opinion was Leah Damm, who wrote a piece for the Spinoff, a New Zealand online magazine, arguing that calling Disney’s portrayal of Maui obese actually perpetuates the stereotype.
“The controversy about Maui’s size only reinforces a very modern European concept of health and beauty,” she writes. Damm also notes that the stereotype of the obese Polynesian is rooted in their “overrepresentation in poor health and mortality statistics; diabetes, heart disease, obesity,” though she adds that these are largely the result of societal issues and inequalities, not poor decision-making.
But in addition to the obesity issue, several Polynesians were more broadly dissatisfied with the way in which Disney’s Maui could be seen as a frivolous character, or comic relief. In contrast, Ilolahia told the Waatea News, in Polynesian folklore, Maui is “a person of strength, a person of magnitude and a person of a godly nature.”
While Brown acknowledged that different Polynesian cultures have different views on Maui’s characteristics, she identified one common tradition in his depiction: his intelligence. The foregoing of brains to make room for brawn and humor is likely what bothers many Polynesians, she said.
“He’s not a comic figure,” she said. “He’s a really important political and cultural figure.”
So important, in fact, that in Tongan culture, there are no images of Maui because he is so sacred.
Though Brown didn’t want to comment on the film because she hadn’t seen it, she expressed concerns that Disney films, and animated films more broadly, have historically conveyed and perpetuated stereotypes. She found it “regrettable” that Disney decided to transform a significant cultural figure into a cartoon.
“We need to be very careful about how we depict the marginalized. … At what point, is entertainment free from ethics?” she said.