Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Moana, 2016

Production Companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, Hurwitz Creative
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Executive Producers: John Lasseter
Associate Producer: Nicole P. Hearon
Producer: Osnat Shurer
Screenplay: Jared Bush
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Animation: Amy Lawson Smeed, Hyrum Viril Osmond
Cinematography: Rob Dressel (layout), Adolph Lusinsky (lighting)
Production Design: Ian Gooding
Editor: Jeff Draheim
Music: Mark Mancina
Running Time: 107 mins.
Classification: Rated PG for peril, some scary scenes and brief thematic elements.
Box-office gross: US domestic $248.8m/worldwide $644.1m
Tagline: The ocean is calling
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina), Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa).
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Plot Motunui, Polynesia, the pre-modern past. Moana is to succeed her father as chief of Motunui. His community never sails past the coral reef, yet Moana longs to explore further. When Motunti’s harvest fails, Moana believes it is because demigod Maui stole the heart of goddess Te Fiti, causing destruction to spread. Gramma Tala takes Moana to a cave, where she discovers that her ancestors were seafaring voyagers. As Gramma is dying, she urges Moana to sail away, find Maui and return the heart to Te Fiti. With the ocean’s help, Moana finds Maui stranded on a remote deserted island. He attempts to steal Moana’s boat and abandon her, but the sea resists him. The two agree that they will retrieve Maui’s magical hook, which allows him to shapeshift, before restoring the heart. After retrieving the hook from Tamatoa (a gigantic crab), they set sail to Te Fiti. They fight lava god Te Ka and are initially defeated, but Moana restores the heart to Te Ka, who reverts to the benevolent Te Fiti. Moana returns to her now fertile home and leads her community in voyaging again. (Adapted from Rizoz 82)

Film note Produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, Moana (2016) is John Musker’s and Ron Clement’s fourth directorial contribution to the Disney Princess franchise. Despite the film’s financial success, neither its theatrical nor merchandising revenue compares to the towering success of its predecessor Frozen (2013). While Moana aligns with the franchise’s family-friendly musical adventure genre, its narrative displays a distinct awareness of contemporary US politics by exploring representation and environmentalism.

Pacific Representation Since the 1990s, Disney has reacted to accusations that it prioritises whiteness and Americanises other cultures through producing non-ethnocentric media that some critics perceive as “deculturated [and] deregionalised [sic.]” (Yoshinga 188). Many of Disney’s early attempts at multiculturalism, such as Mulan (1998) and Pocahontas (1995), are unfaithful and insensitive to their setting’s history, culture, and social traditions, thus “reinforc[ing] the hegemonic [North American] culture” (Anjirbag 1). However, throughout the 2010s, Disney producers have increased their conscientious treatment of non-Western cultures, shifting towards a left-liberal political position. Moana exemplifies Disney’s endeavours to produce progressive commercial blockbusters. The film’s left-liberal stance is further indicated through its marketing and distribution strategy, being perceived as a political palliative that Americans “need[ed]” two weeks after Trump was elected president (Ferber).

Moana’s commitment to responsible racial representation is multifold. First, the film’s position as a commercial blockbuster increases the visibility of Pacific life, thus potentially reducing its exotification and allowing “the opportunity [for Pacific natives] to identify with relatable role models who evoke feelings of pride in their cultural identity”, in turn increasing their confidence (Dittmer 28).

The commitment to positive representation is demonstrated by Disney’s collaboration with native Pacific islanders during Moana’s production process, in which it established the Oceanic Story Trust. The Oceanic Story Trust consisted of anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, and cultural ambassadors who advised producers throughout the film’s production process in an effort to remain “faithful to [indigenous Pacific] culture.” (Giardina) The film’s soundtrack exemplifies this collaboration. Opetaia Foa’i, a native Samoan musician, significantly influenced the film’s sound design, incorporating percussive rhythms and “Samoan and Tokelauan lyrics” within musical numbers, increasing its cultural authenticity (Anjirbag 9). This collaborative filmmaking process is further exemplified within the song ‘You’re Welcome’, which illustrates multiple legends of Maui from a broad range of Pacific cultures through the 2D animation of traditional Marquesan tattoos. Through the song’s lyrics and aesthetic, Disney recognises a broad history of Pacific folklore that it “has not inverted”, thus demonstrating “the[ir] research […] and their utilisation of the Oceanic Story Trust.” (Anjirbag 12) However, despite natives influencing Moana’s diegesis, some scholars argue that the soundtrack’s embedding of Pacific sounds within the context of English-language pop songs acts to “safely contain the ‘other’ sounds with those that are normative” for Western audiences (Armstrong 4).

In contrast, many native Pacific scholars deny that Moana is an example of conscientious representation, instead citing that the blockbuster is a further instalment “in a long line of commodifications [sic.] and appropriations of indigenous storylines at the hands of […] Disney.” (Ngata) One significant critique of the film is its homogenisation of different islands’ cultures, resulting in a simplified representation of Pacific life. This diminution aids in the legibility of Western narrative conventions, providing a portrayal of Pacific culture that Western audiences view as “authoritative” due to the involvement of the Oceanic Story Trust (Anjirbag 4). This cultural assimilation is exemplified in Moana’s depiction of Maui. Maui assumes varying degrees of significance throughout the different Pacific cultures but is generally perceived as intelligent and charming, contrasting his diegetic portrayal in the film. In response to test screenings, Maui’s character design became oversized, “replicating racist tropes of obese Polynesian bodies” (Yoshinaga 189-190). Additionally, critics believe that his crude comedic characterisation secularises the character, potentially disrespecting Pacific spirituality. However, Musker is not surprised by these critiques, blaming such criticisms on the diversity of Pacific cultures and their tradition of oral storytelling (Giardina).

Scholars propose that Moana’s misrepresentation originates from Hollywood employment structures, in which indigenous people are often exclusively “hired as short-term contingent labo[u]r.” (Yoshinaga 191) The “gendered and racialised stratification of screenwriters commonly hired on a Hollywood commercial film” – historically white males – restricts the potential for cultural accuracy due to the writers’ hegemonic experiences (Yoshinaga 193). Thus, diegetic representation suffers in US commercial cinema due to the industry’s exclusion of “native community-based, cultural writing talent at its highest employment level of screenplay and story credit” (Yoshinaga 199).

While the debate as to whether Moana is a positive representation of Pacific life is ongoing, scholars agree that the inclusion of indigenous people in the filmmaking process is essential to portray marginalised cultures sensitively (Dittmer 28).

Blockbuster as advert The contemporary US filmscape is, arguably, one in which blockbusters are primarily vehicles for the potential purchase of merchandise associated with the media; thus, these films only exist to “turn into toys” (Balio 25). Disney exemplifies this concept, being the top global licensor of 2020, accruing a licensing revenue of $54bn and even establishing a subsidiary, Disney Consumer Products, devoted to merchandising (Cioletti 32). This prosperity is due to the brand’s conglomerate business model and franchise film strategy, which maintains the relevancy of Disney-owned Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar properties within broader culture, continuing the sale of their associated retail goods. However, Disney’s consumer revenue reaches far beyond the box-office, as the company also markets experiences and amusement rides centred on its blockbusters, such as the Frozen Ever After theme park attraction in the Walt Disney World Resort. This diverse revenue strategy has proven successful for the media conglomerate, with “parks, experiences and products” being their third-biggest revenue source in 2021, generating $16.5bn in revenue despite a global pandemic (Stroll). The Disney Princess franchise also presents lucrative opportunities for the company, as demonstrated by Frozen, whose merchandising outsold its worldwide box-office by $3.7bn in 2014 (Shelton).

As Disney Princesses are “marketable because of what they represent”, Disney’s marketing strategy relies on promoting the spectator’s aim to take on the symbolic meanings of the princess, to become a Disney Princess themselves (Hoffman 36). Through this ideology, merchandise sales depend on Disney’s ability to convey an idealised protagonist that their audience can aspirationally identify with, a strategy that spans from a film’s diegesis to global-chain Disney Stores, in which “magic mirrors […] show children’s reflection[s] as a princess instead of themselves” (Hoffman 12). Theoretically, once this ideology is assimilated, the spectator is compelled to buy consumer goods that realise this fantasy (Hoffman 34).

Moana first engrains itself within this approach through its genre: a musical, which Richard Dyer suggests epitomises entertainment’s utopian projections. He states that classical Hollywood musicals offer the potential that “alternatives, hopes, wishes […] can be imagined and maybe realised’ (20). Often musicals do so by “redress[ing] the inadequacies perceived [with]in society”, such as environmentalism and the tension between societal expectations and freewill, notably two significant themes within Moana and key sociological issues within the 2010s (Ruppert 141). However, rather than demonstrate how to achieve such utopias, the Hollywood musical communicates “what [a] utopia would feel like” through affective representational and non-representational signs (Dyer 20). Dyer defines such non-representational signs as “colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, [and] camerawork”, providing a framework in which Moana can be analysed to understand how the film utilises utopia as a marketing strategy (20).

Moana‘s animated status enables the film to display representational signs of utopias that “transcend and negate issues of verisimilitude” to instead prioritise the production of “emotional responses” through fantastical imagery and sequences (Crosswaite 182). Crosswaite argues that compared to live-action cinema, animation effortlessly conjures utopian affects due to its artifice, which “release […] the audience” from their material concerns, a notion traced since 17th Century bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre) (182).

One way in which Disney utilises animation to provide utopian aesthetics is through Moana‘s character and set design. Beyond the traditional methods of framing Moana with flattering lighting and following the rule of thirds to conjure a notion of harmony, her computer-generated imagery (CGI) character design evokes Uhrig’s notion of the “baby schemata” through her wide eyes and large head (60). Uhrig proposes that such a design automatically triggers an evolutionary “empathetic attachment to a character”, reading them as inherently likeable, trustworthy, and open, idealised traits within young Western women (64 – 67). The ubiquity of this technique has even garnered Disney critiques, with Philip Cohen suggesting that such child-like features “symboli[s]e femininity in Disneyland” and preserve outdated gender expectations (Uhrig 68). Despite this criticism, Moana’s character design superficially yet instinctively codes her character as idealistically perfect, which due to its visual basis, encourages the sale of Moana costumes and branded beauty items for consumers who wish to replicate such a utopian aesthetic and moral beauty.

Similarly, Moana‘s environment is represented as utopian through its vibrant colouring, fluid cinematography, and clean textures, techniques enhanced by its animated status. For instance, docile pans of semitranslucent waves showcase a vivid aquatic ecosystem to the spectator. Moana‘s ocean is devoid of negativity, such as pollution or danger, unavoidably associated with the real-life ocean, instead remaining unattainably idealistic. These CGI waves also function as a marketing tool through their technological achievement, becoming a cinematic spectacle commended for its realistic engineering and beauty (Rozov 82). Through aestheticising the film’s settings, Disney multiplies its opportunities for consumer goods beyond dolls and accessories to include playsets that involve the film’s sets, such as Moana’s boat on the ocean. Through these formal decisions, Moana and her environment become a spectacle of beauty, propagating the notion of the film as a utopia that can be replicated through commerce.

As a musical, the film “dissolve[s] the distinction between [its] narrative and [musical] numbers” through the soundtrack’s seamless integration into the film’s continuity, a choice signalling “the film [world as] […] utopian” (Dyer 8). Musical sequences such as ‘Where You Are’ and ‘We Know The Way’ are aestheticised through non-representational signs, such as their bright colours, harmonious rhythms, and pleasing melodies pitched in chords associated with positivity. Additionally, these sequences present Moana’s community and culture as idyllically harmonious via their ensemble cast, organised harmonies, and unified choreography, aligning with Fredric Jameson’s vision of utopia as an ‘affirmation of collective solidarity’ (291). Through these techniques, the film further aligns with Dyer’s definition of utopian filmmaking as such social harmony provides an affective alternative to the social fragmentation that viewers experience within the material world (26). In this manner, Moana displays how Disney intentionally crafts its films, from their characterisation, aesthetic, and content, to convey desirable representations that spectators identify with and thus attempt to attain via the purchase of tie-in commodities.

Disney’s strategy of convincing spectators to realise their utopian desires through consumption may affect adult spectators; however, Moana predominantly addresses adult spectators as vessels whose disposable incomes pay for their children’s desired merchandise. For Moana’s products to be successful, the film must convince consumers that it is unique from other entries in the Disney Princess franchise, thus justifying their purchase. The film’s left-liberal stance is integral to this appeal, alluring parents who wish to promote progressive media in their child’s life, compelling them to buy a Moana toy over merchandise associated with films that the consumer views as conservative. Moana differentiates itself from previous, less-progressive Disney Princess films through diegetic self-referentiality. Maui’s dialogue teases the formulaic narratives and homogenous representations within the franchise multiple times throughout the film. For instance, stating that Moana must be a princess as she wears dresses and possesses an animal sidekick. Through this self-referentiality, Jared Bush (Moana’s screenwriter) recognises the mainstream critiques of Disney Princess narratives, diegetically mocking them to present these issues as resolved within Moana, hence appealing to previous critics of Disney. Through comedically utilising its politics as product differentiation, Moana secures a unique position within the franchise’s competitive market to encourage sales.

Despite these efforts to stimulate the purchase of Moana associated goods, the film demonstrates that “box[-]office success may not always translate into toy sales’ (Whitten). While Disney has not published the film’s merchandising revenue, a representative from The NPD Group revealed that Moana was not within the “top 50” best-selling properties selling at retail two weeks after the film’s release (Whitten). This mediocre performance contrasts significantly with the seismic impact other Disney Princess films, such as Frozen, had on the market, inferring that another element of Moana‘s diegesis may have inhibited its success. Some scholars have argued that these flaws are “the lack of an iconic outfit and an absence of roleplaying toys” within the film’s narrative, obstructing a child’s ability to embody Moana even if they do internalise their idealisation of the character (Whitten).

Moana‘s merchandising was also challenged by accusations that ranged from cultural appropriation and the commercialisation of indigenous cultures to allegations of racism. For instance, a costume of the character Maui, which consisted of a tattooed muscle suit and leaf skirt, was labelled as a form of “Polyface” by Pacific Islanders (Gettell). This negative publicity resulted in Disney revoking the product. Since “criticisms of Disney are now far more accessible” to the public, due to the ubiquity of the web, the power difference “between Disney as the monolithic media producer, and various socio-cultural groups” may become more balanced, as represented by this incident (Anjirbag 13). Hence despite Disney’s attempts to promote Moana merchandise, other elements of the film’s diegesis, along with cultural backlash, has limited their success.   

Eco-feminism While environmental feminism is a broad discipline, Moana subscribes to its integral construct that the patriarchal perception of nature as “a resource […] to yield capital gain” has enacted mass environmental degradation (Hernwati 260). Bush conveys this ideology through Maui, whose treatment of nature as a source of profit rather than a force to be respected motivates the film’s whole narrative. Maui steals the heart of Te Fiti in an attempt to cultivate his popularity, hence power, an act representative of the “raping” of nature by patriarchal, capitalist corporations (Hernwati 263). Bush condemns this treatment of the environment through the loss of Maui’s fishhook, a metaphorical castration as proposed by dialogue in which the character cites that he is ‘not Maui without’ his fishhook, hence linking his strength to an essentialist view of masculinity. Through this gendered punishment for Maui’s actions, Moana aligns with the ecofeminist ideology that toxic, capitalistic perceptions of masculinity generate and intensify environmental issues.

Additionally, Moana refutes further patriarchal understandings of nature through Chief Tui, whose assertion that the ocean is dangerous cultivates a fear of the environment that only Moana protests. Ecofeminists propose that the depiction of nature as “wild and dangerous” whose ability to induce “catastrophic hazards” indicate that it “must be tamed” aims to villainise nature to excuse its exploitation (Hernwati 260). While Chief Tui demonstrates this notion to a limited extent, due to his village’s seemingly overall harmonious relationship with nature, its inclusion in Moana relates to the concept’s broader assimilation within US cinema. The ideology that nature is dangerous is evident in the cinematic trend of Man vs Nature films, typified by exaggerated machismo and brutalised depictions of rurality, such as in 127 Hours (2010) and The Grey (2011). However, through Moana‘s aestheticized environments, a personification of the ocean and its titular character’s safety, the film rejects a nefarious perception of nature, thus aligning itself with ecofeminism.

While contradicting patriarchal conceptions of nature, Moana asserts its alignment to an ecofeminist approach to environmentalism through musical numbers and the protagonist’s characterisation. The song ‘Where You Are’ includes multiple group shots displaying intricate choreography through a diverse, vivid colour palette, which in addition to lyrics that imply the village’s sustainable farming of coconuts, portrays Montunni as picturesque through its harmony with nature. The film further asserts that respect for nature is essential to environmentalism through Moana, who advocates for animals (Heihei) possessing talents beyond being food and more significantly prevents global environmental catastrophe by approaching Te Kā with understanding, care rather than violence. Through its diegesis and plot resolution, Moana aligns itself with the ecofeminist principle that a nurturing, interconnected relationship with nature is integral for environmental rejuvenation.

Moana‘s subscription to ecofeminism suggests that the film functions to raise environmental awareness. Through this theme, Moana corresponds to the societal and cinematic trend of environmentalism prevalent in the mid-2010s. This trend is demonstrated by left-wing documentaries such as Cowspiracy (2014) and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017), along with blockbusters where climate change becomes a plot motivator, as seen in Downsizing (2017). In contrast to many contemporary US films, however, Moana denies a ‘defeatist’ approach to climate change and refutes the conservative notion that ‘environmentalism [equates] to eco-terrorism’ (Buckley). The ubiquity of the villainization of environmentalism is exhibited by Disney’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018), in which Thanos’ Malthusian ideology forefronts the notion that environmentalist efforts are dangerous to humankind. Alternatively, Moana presents a left-wing optimism that climate change is reversible through dedicated collaboration, positioning the film as a left-liberal outlier of the trend.

This position can be seen in the way Moana references the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Musker pitched the film in 2011, a year after the disaster, with the ecocatastrophe influencing the film-makers’ aesthetic and narrative decisions. During Moana’s nightmare, the environmental threat is represented by an inky, all-consuming darkness visually comparable to oil. Additionally, the shot revealing this threat includes black tendrils to represent the destruction, positioned to the right of the frame, thus mimicking the composition of satellite imagery of the Louisiana coast after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  

By these means, Moana symbolically reiterates Obama’s $60bn economic sanction of BP for environmentally damaging practices (Uhlmann). While this narrative element could demonstrate Disney’s advocacy for eco-accountability, the film’s environmentally populist stance is limited by Maui recovering his fishhook twice over the story’s duration. Moana also aligns with the left-wing notion that cooperation is essential to preventing climate change, mimicking the collaboration between corporations and communities to minimise the real-world oil spill with Moana’s and Maui’s teamwork. Through the characters’ respective symbolism as community-based activists and elite industries, their relationship marks Disney’s proposal that collaboration is integral to minimise environmental degradation.

Despite Moana‘s in-text promotion of environmental consciousness, the film can be perceived as greenwashing propaganda due to Disney’s own environmentally devasting practices. Disney partnered with Hawaiian Airlines to promote Moana, a strategy in which three Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A330 jet-fuel planes were adorned with the film’s logo and characters, directly exacerbating the unsustainable burning of fossil fuels. Moana was also heavily employed to advertise Disney’s Aulani resort in Oahu, Hawaii. The resort was “vehemently opposed” by native Hawaiian residents, with its development enacting mass ecological damage and endangering the locals’ food security (Grandinetti). The Aulani resort further demonstrates that Disney’s consideration of Pacific islanders does not expand beyond its commercial imperative to make profit. The resort’s accommodation costs upwards of US$550 a night despite being located in the most economically disadvantaged area of Hawaii, with The Harbour homeless camp nearby (Grandinetti).

Moana‘s participation in the Disney Princess franchise’s mass merchandising further opposes its environmentalist values. Most of Disney’s consumer goods are comprised of non-biodegradable plastics, thus indirectly polluting the ocean environments that Moana devotedly calls to protect. This pollution is intensified by the Disney Princess franchise strategy, through which regular releases produce a cinematic trend cycle that renders previous entries into the franchise and their associated merchandise less valuable and thus more disposable. This trend cycle further exacerbates its unsustainability as more plastic-based goods relating to the new release are produced. Thus, while Moana‘s text displays an environmentalist agenda, these values are performative by Disney, conveying a left-liberal stance to appeal to modern audiences and augment its capital rather than demonstrating the brand’s movement to become more environmentally conscious.

Through its approach to racial representations and environmentalism, Moana asserts itself as a left-liberal film within a post-Obama US political landscape. However, the film’s progressive labelling can be heavily disputed by the actions of its production company, through which Moana commodifies and homogenises Pacific culture, exacerbates the real-world climate crisis and contributes to Disney’s monopoly position within children’s merchandising, hence opposing common left-liberal values. This dichotomy between Moana‘s diegesis and its production company’s practices situates the film in an ambiguous political position. Despite this, Disney’s explicit attempt to satisfy left-liberal audiences indicates a shift in the contemporary US audience’s political consensus.


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Written by Elspeth Taylor (2022), Queen Mary, University of London

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