When it comes to movies like Moana, I could write to the animation department or the songwriters till my fingers bleed. They make reviewing Disney films a piece of cake. That’s why writing to you is such a treat, Kalikolehua. Your role is so unusual, it’s ground-breaking. As community relations manager, you were in charge of translating the entire Polynesian culture to the big screen at a time where cultural exchange matters the most.
If there’s ever been a period in our history where racial sensitivity has been so prevalent, it’s 2016. It seems now as though all the progress that has been made in amending bias and prejudice is set to fall back 30 years. Having someone like you on staff, whose sole mission is to ensure that all racial sensitivities regarding the Polynesian people is noted and addressed, is a huge step forward, not only for Disney, but for all of us.
Moana tells the story of Moana, a young girl who travels across the vast ocean in search of Maui, a shape-shifting demigod who has stolen a treasure that is causing all organic life on Moana’s home island to die. Along her journey, Moana faces roadblocks in the form of a giant crab, coconut pirates, and a gargantuan lava beast.
That synopsis alone raises some red flags on what could be deemed insensitive to the Polynesian people. Luckily, Disney did not reach into their old bag of ignorance for Moana. In addition in hiring you, Disney undertook months and months of intensive research of the Polynesian culture by forming the Oceania Trust, an advisory board of various Polynesian experts in history, linguistics, art, and more.
The Oceania Trust was called upon to provide direction on key decisions affecting Moana, like character designs, animated choreography sequences, and rectifying haphazard marketing tactics. You were the liaison between the Trust and the Studio and worked closely with the Trust in every aspect of the filmmaking process. You were ready to dive into the most detailed of concerns and tackle them head on, like deciding which textures were going to be used in the fabric of our main characters, or the symbolism behind Samoan tattoos.
Some might see this process as trivial, but when you’re trying to make a statement about respecting different cultures, it’s of the utmost importance.
And given Moana is an animated movie, the fact that Disney hired voice actors with Polynesian heritage makes the experience all the more impactful. Hollywood still has an issue with whitewashing, so one would assume that an animated movie could get away with hiring white actors since they won’t physically be featured on screen--but not Moana. Dwayne Johnson, Nicole Scherzinger, Jemaine Clement, and newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, all have Polynesian roots.
Your tireless efforts in representing the Polynesian community sounds like a daunting task but it’s all worth it in the end. Moana is a highly enjoyable addition to the Disney roster of films. It follows the same cadence as other Disney releases that feature a young girl on an adventure to find herself, yet the visual style, toe-tapping music, and attention to detail keep the format fresh and exciting.
Moana could’ve been filled with island tropes involving hula skirts and tiki torches. Instead it’s a fantastic adventure that brings Polynesian traditions and mythology to a mass audience through song, dance, and heart. Thank you for your commitment to respecting the Polynesian past, present, and future.