For anyone unfamiliar with Disney’s 2016 film Moana, it follows the teenage daughter of the village chief from a small Pacific island as she attempts to avert an environmental disaster and save her people by returning the Heart of Te Fiti with the help of demigod Maui. Disney widely publicized its efforts to ensure that the film was the most culturally authentic and accurate film about an indigenous culture the studio has ever created – beginning with an extensive tour of Oceania at the outset and building a cultural trust (the Oceanic Story Trust) to provide insight and oversight as the script development, artistic process and production went forward. The film inspired polarized critiques, from those hailing Moana as the best film the studio has ever made, to those who downright felt Disney had no right to profit from an indigenous story.

The film is feature-length, and there are many topics, themes, visuals and stories that could be dissected, but I’ve narrowed it down to a single clip to help focus in on two key elements: the influence of the film’s primary markets’ demographic and culture on the storytelling choices made and the sociopolitical context of the American market, in particular.

At the time Moana was released (Thanksgiving 2016), the Standing Rock protests against the DAPL were at their peak. As mentioned above, the plot revolves around the title character addressing an environmental disaster that promises to ruin her island and
her people.
The root cause of the problem is that the Heart of Te Fiti – literally, the heart of creation and Mother Earth itself – has been stolen, and Moana is chosen/aided by one of the Earth’s great forces to safeguard and return the heart to end the destruction of her home. 

“This glorification of native peoples striving to save their island from environmental catastrophe stands in stark contrast to the actions currently underway at Standing Rock, where Native Americans and their allies are being attacked, arrested, and sprayed with water cannons (in the freezing cold) for trying to defend their water sources and sacred lands” (Herman 2016).

Fig. 1. Protest at Standing Rock.  

There is a significant parallel between Standing Rock and Moana in the story around indigenous people protecting the Earth, defending their land and fighting against environmental injustice. The screenshots in Fig. 2 are from the moment Moana rights the injustices of the past, returns the Heart and saves her island and her people from disaster.

Moana is set roughly 2000 years in the past, at the end of The Great Pause (the period of time between the first and second waves of indigenous colonization by native peoples from West Polynesia via ocean-faring canoes), which falls prior to European colonization, and  is why this moment first captured my attention.

Fig. 2. Stills from Moana.

In my research to date, I’ve not uncovered a Polynesian myth about
a figure parting the sea and walking on dry land – but to anyone coming from a Euro-Christian tradition, the story is immediately recognizable as the story of Moses parting the Red Sea (see screenshots ofThe Prince of Egypt, from the moment Moses parts the Red Sea). Although post-colonization, the region is significantly Catholic (and as such, this storytelling choice would be more authentic), it seems odd, given the myriad ways the writers and directors could have chosen to actualize the moment for this character and her historical context. 

Fig. 3. Stills from The Prince of Egypt.

Observing the visual parallels between these two sets of images brings to mind the Eurocentric approach of the “universal” International Typographic Style, and how, “while indigenous beliefs and visual sensibilities could be incorporated within the International style, alternative principles of composition were overwhelmed by a uniformity that left little room for cultural differences in approach” (Drucker and McVarish 2013, 254). 

However, given the primary markets for the release of the movie were the US and Europe, the decision or bias towards telling stories that are more recognizable to that demographic makes more sense. The use of this specific visual/cultural device points back to the idea of “following the money” – ultimately, Disney did not produce Moana for altruistic reasons. The end goal was to recoup their investment in the production and turn a huge profit from ticket sales, merchandise and theme park experiences – none of which would be possible without appealing to the primary audience.

Works Cited:

Herman, Doug. “How the Story of ‘Moana’ and Maui Holds Up Against Cultural Truths.”, Smithsonian Institution, 2 Dec. 2016,, accessed 3 January 2020. 

Drucker, Johanna and Emily McVarish. “Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide.” New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009.


Cobb, Kayla. “Your Cheat Sheet On The Legends Behind Disney’s ‘Moana’.” Decider, Decider, 28 Nov. 2016,, accessed November 16, 2019.

Kolhatkar, Sonali, and Tina Ngata. “Despite Claims Of Authenticity, Disney’s Moana Still Offensive.” Rising Up with Sonali, 23 Nov. 2016,, accessed 2 February 2020.

Levin, Sam. “Dakota Access Pipeline: the Who, What and Why of the Standing Rock Protests.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Nov. 2016,, accessed 2 February 2020.

P, Jessica, and Pima Library. “Moana and Polynesian Myths and Culture.” Pima County Public Library,, accessed 3 January 2020. 

Robinson, Tasha. “After 80 Years of Experiments, Disney Has Made the Perfect Disney Movie.” The Verge, The Verge, 26 Nov. 2016,, accessed 3 January 2020.

Terrell, John Edward. “Recalibrating Polynesian Prehistory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 1 Feb. 2011,, accessed 4 February 2020.

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