Disney’s cultural conquest: Polynesia and the Pacific Islands

In 1971, Disney opened their newest Walt Disney World resort lodging in Orlando, Florida known as “Disney’s Polynisian Village Resort.” Later, in 2011, Disney opened “Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa” in Kapolei, Hawai’i. In 2014, Pixar released the short film “Lava,” a story about two Hawaiian-coded volcanoes falling in love. Lastly and most recently, in 2016, Disney released the hit CG-animated film “Moana,” another woman lead within Polynesia. 

It is more than clear that the Walt Disney conglomerate has a fixation on Polynesian imagery, language and culture. However, where do they cross the line from positive representation to blatant appropriation? Furthermore, is that a line they walk at all, or are they constantly on one side or the other? 

A great place to start here is with the various Polynesian-themed resorts. When Walt Disney World, visitors were given two options for overnight stays: The Contemporary Resort or The Polynesian Village Resort. The Contemporary is known for its sleek, modern look while the Polynesian was seen as an adventurous, exotic island getaway. This is just the beginning of their macroaggressive missteps. 

Today, when checking into the Polynesian, you are led directly into a building called “The Great Ceremonial House,” a three story lobby packed with bell service, over-priced meal opportunities and all the “Moana” merchandise any materialistic child could wish for. The blog “Disney Information” describes the main building like this: “With a 3-story high atrium, a rich tropical color palette and a warm sense of hospitality, the Great Ceremonial House introduces guests to the Polynesian adventure that awaits them.” The obvious problem here is their jump to advertise this resort as if you are Polynesia’s Columbus, ready to cut through the jungle with a machete and encounter the “primitive” or “exotic” peoples that lie within. 

A large part of Hawaiian culture is the connection to the physical world around them, thus relating directly to the protection of that earth. When walking into The Great Ceremonial House, guests are promptly met by a cast member, eager to give them a lei, the wreath-like gift most commonly made out of orchids, carnations and other blossoms.

Traditionally, lei are meant to welcome someone in a kind way. They can also be used in celebratory, affectionate and cosmetic situations. The proper way to dispose of a lei is to cut the string and return it to nature in some way or another. Of course, the hundreds of lei passed out daily are made of overproduced, cheap plastic and cloth, making them blatantly unsustainable and impossible to return to their earth without causing more harm. 

A popular addition to the Polynesian is the “Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show,” a dinner show that according to the Walt Disney World website includes, “enthralling traditions from Polynesia, including dances from Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Hawaii.” It also serves a “Tropical Feast” ranging from many entrees like “Aloha pulled pork” and chicken nuggets for the kids.

 Disney’s 2002 film, “Lilo and Stitch,” features multiple scenes where we watch young Lilo, a native Hawaiian, learn about and connect with her culture in hula classes, paralleled by Nani’s harsh reality of performing that culture in appropriated outfits for her waitressing job. Oh, the irony!

Here, too, in the “Spirit of Aloha” show we see wild fire spinners paired with elegant dancers. We’re introduced to each act with the sassy-yet-wise host of the show, a character called Auntie Wini. YouTube has kindly provided me with video evidence of this show and while the actual ethnicities of the actors are unknown, each speaking part has a “Hawaiian accent.” They teach the audience Hawaiian words and sing songs from “Lilo & Stitch.” 

According to a casting call posted to Backstage.com in 2018, this dinner show requires talent of any and all ethnicities, “Especially seeking performers with a diverse look.” Granted, they have specific parameters for certain roles such as, “Familiarization with Polynesian dance.” They’re concerned with presenting the illusion of the cultures of Polynesia, just enough to entrance the audience with the oohs and aahs of spinning fire and graceful dancing. 

As far as casting goes, Disney adores indulging in the illusion of diversity. In the Voss article, “Odd Job: What’s it like to be a real-life Disney princess?” former Disney cast member Kristen Sotakoun speaks out about her experience as a biracial Asian woman at Disney, namely what it was like playing Pocahontas as a person with zero Native American heritage. “I was Mulan as well, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not Chinese, but this is closer.’ But one of the Mulans was Puerto Rican. It’s wild. Out of the eight Mulans, none of us were Chinese,” said Sotakoun.

Race-conscious and colorblind casting are a very serious debate in the acting world right now, especially with productions being anywhere from “Hamilton: An American Musical”’s BIPOC-led cast to Disney’s newest “Raya and The Last Dragon,” a story about Southeast Asain people, with a minority of the cast actually being Southeast Asain.

The colorblind casting debate is one I won’t dive into today, but there’s no denying that Disney clearly has a diversity problem, to put it simply. For a resort that seems to hold the Polynesian/Island aesthetic in the highest regard, the actual sustaining and educating of the culture fundamentally built into that aesthetic is worthless to them. 

“Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa” and “Lava” aren’t fundamental pieces of this puzzle, and, although their existence do add to the obvious fixation within this company, frankly there’s not as much critical to say. Opening a luxurious and hideously expensive resort on an island that already thrives on its tourism seems counterintuitive. Though the resort has decent reviews, it’s mostly accessible to Disney timeshare holders. When reviewing the island getaway, LA Times writer Brady MacDonald wrote, “This is Hawaii. Do you really need Disney?”

Finally, we come to the feature films: the undeniable cash grabs… and actual earnest attempts at properly depicting a culture. Let’s begin with the much more popular and modern “Moana.”

“Moana” is about a young woman living on a fictionalized Polynesian island (closely related to Sāmoa) who goes through the typical hero’s journey with the help of the mythological demigod Māui. Although on the surface this storyline could be placed under any cultural lens, it is intrinsically tied to its cultural identity within Polynesia. 

On the bright side, when making this film, the directors and producers took their previous missteps in telling Indigenous stories (I’m looking at you, “Pocahontas”) into account. They traveled through New Zealand, Tahiti (French Polynesia), Fiji, and Sāmoa to undergo research. They also had a board of cultural consultants to call upon. 

According to Dr. Vilsoni Hereniko, a professor at the University of Hawai’i–Mānoa, “Due to these efforts, ‘Moana’ is the most accurate representation of Polynesia by a major Hollywood studio to date, from the first moving images about Hawai’i in 1898 up to this time of writing in 2017.”

Another positive outlook is perhaps one we cannot avoid, though it may be a given. “Overall, NaHHA supports the education of Native Hawaiian culture through mainstream mediums, because it guarantees an opportunity for the public and our visitors to gain more knowledge about our people and history. We, like many others, are thrilled to see a movie of this caliber take the main stage and are happy that Disney chose actors of Polynesian descent to play the characters. […] We encourage everyone to discover further the beauty of our culture and history to build a better understanding of our islands and our people,” said Pohai Ryan, the executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA).

However, the attempt at making this story as historically and culturally accurate as it needs to be (with reasonable exceptions such as not marrying off the 16-year-old female character even though that was the cultural norm back then), doesn’t automatically give it a pass. 

I’m sure we all remember the Halloween controversy that came with the premiere of the film involving a tattooed brown skin suit. Responders quickly pointed out the glaring “brownface” within the children’s costume, and Disney responded by pulling the product. It makes you wonder: who cleared that to begin with?

This brings us to the missteps within “Moana” and its reception. Tagi Qolouvaki, an English professor at Hawai’i Community College made some very eloquent and critical points in the following quote that I didn’t feel right about cutting down:

“It is decidedly not okay that Disney appropriates and commodifies our stories, our gods, our mana; and certainly, as scholar-activists like Tina Ngata have made clear, it is abhorrent that this appropriation made plastic will only add to the great garbage patches clogging the oceans—our oceans—that support life. There is a lot to be critical of here, including the lack of Pacific and female representation in the film’s crew of writers and directors, its Polycentrism, and the messianic narrative that would single out one chiefly Polynesian girl from her community as its savior, even if Moana doesn’t do it alone. Disney’s work, ultimately, is not a call for humanity to responsibly steward our oceans; we understand it as a capitalist dream machine. The loloma/aloha we feel in response to this story is in echo to our own reflections and reflections of our beloved Oceania. For more, we must look to our own work.”

Somehow, this is what brings us to “Lilo & Stitch”. The modern-set film deals with its inclusion of Hawai’ian culture in a very different way from “Moana,” which I think goes without saying in most cases. Where “Moana” and its music, plot, characterization and animation is intrinsically tied to Polynesia by something more mythological than outright, “Lilo & Stitch” uses Kaua’i and Hawai’ian culture to the betterment of the characters and world they live in. 

I found this particularly meaningful when researching critical reception of the films. Overall, Polynesian audiences, particularly Hawai’ian audiences, had much more negative things to say about “Moana” than they did “Lilo & Stitch.” This ranged from any of the aforementioned grievances to inconsistencies in the mythos, character design (particularly of Māui) and more. 

Why did Disney seem to regress from making politically correct, nurturing stories?

I don’t have the answer to that and that’s not to insinuate that “Lilo & Stitch” is the perfect representation of Hawai’ian culture that film has ever had. That said, it is at the very least a story set in Hawaii that stars women of color, as opposed to cinema’s usual blonde hair-blue eyes protagonist look (hence “50 First Dates,” “Soul Surfer,” “Just Go With It” and more). 

However, where “Moana” soars, “Lilo & Stitch” plummets. YouTube film analyst Sideways discusses Disney’s musical evolution and subsequent blunders in his video entitled “How Disney uses Language.” 

In the video, Sideways discusses how Disney will often use western collages of indigenous and traditional musical sounds in places where it doesn’t make sense. An example of this would be in Disney’s “Brother Bear” during the song “Transformation.” Here, Disney uses the sounds of Bulgarian Choir music to elicit a “tribal” sound. 

“So they used music that most people hadn’t heard of that had nothing to do with the context of the film, in order to make the scene sound… I don’t know, more ‘magical?’ ‘Alien?’” said Sideways, pointing out the glaring issue there. However, he next gives them credit for using Iñupiat as the language in the song, since the film is loosely based on Inuit culture. 

His analysis gets much deeper than this, and I recommend listening to his work, but he eventually comes to the musical use in “Lilo & Stitch.” He speaks specifically about the scene where Nani sings “Aloha ‘Oe” to Lilo. “This serves a triple function. First, it demonstrates the ethicacy of having a character sing in a native language as opposed to the vernacular. Second, this piece of music actually makes sense in terms of the narrative. ‘Aloha ‘Oe’ was written by Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawai’i, and ‘Aloha ‘Oe’ translates to ‘farewell to thee’. […] In this scene, Nani thinks she’s losing Lilo, so she tells Lilo goodbye in the most Hawai’ian way she can. Third, because this piece of music exists in the real world, it actually serves to anchor the listener in an authentic Hawaiian sonic landscape,” said Sideways. 

Unfortunately, he quickly comes to the harder question of all of that that becomes, “But wait, if we’re using a real piece of music that has serious cultural significance in a piece of media that isn’t explicitly written, created by, and for that culture, then isn’t this cultural appropriation?”

Aside from the speculation Sideways brings up, there is a real issue with some of the music used in “Lilo & Stitch.” Let me take us back to the establishing shots of Kaua’i in the film. Lilo is swimming in the ocean, among all of the most colorful fish you’ve ever seen. Behind her, a song called “He Mele No Lilo” plays. 

Tom Brislin of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa writes in his essay, “Ethics in the Codification and Commodification of Indigenous Culture,” “Although composed by Mark Keali’I Ho’omalu, and sung by the all-Hawaiian Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus, it sparked controversy among Hawaiian cultural activists as it rewrote two mele inoa, sacred name chants honoring King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani, now re-dedicated to a cartoon character.”

This isn’t even the worst of it. Disney, though on the surface made all the right stops to make this a considerate and accurate move for the film, then went on the copyright “He Mele No Lilo,” effectively stripping the tunes from the sacred meaning they have. Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that Disney, while making this innocent kid’s film seem like a step towards the normalization of abnormal family units and the education of modern Hawai’ian culture, would rather commodify and appropriate the marginalized culture in question than celebrate it. 

However, there is a brief glimmer of hope that can be seen in “Moana,” at least as far as music goes. In “Moana,” Polynesian-made music is also reworked and structured, similar to the mele inoa in “Lilo & Stitch.” The difference here is that they worked closely with the authors and music makers that originated these songs, as well as used their reason for making to enhance the story. 

For example, Foa’i’s South Pacific fusion group, Te Vaka’s, song “Loimata E Maligi” worked on two important songs in the film: “An Innocent Warrior” and “Know Who You Are.” Candice Elanna Steiner from the University of Hawai’i–Mānoa says, “While I had known prior to the premiere that the team had incorporated this song, originally written to lament the death of eighteen young girls and their supervisor in a dormitory fire in Tuvalu in 2000, it wasn’t until I saw the new songs’ roles in the film that I began to see the layers of meaning that this revisiting allows.”

When speaking of its inclusion in “An Innocent Warrior,” a song played when the ocean chooses baby Moana to be its champion, Steiner comes to this conclusion: “It is a very moving scene on its own, but to me, given the original song’s background, it seems almost as if Moana knows the girls’ story and draws her strength from their memory.”

Moana uses language in a way that doesn’t westernize the sound, but rather provides English verses for improved comprehension within broader audiences. For many, the consistent use of correct cultural sounds was exciting. 

Steiner sadly then found out that there is no conducive way to sing along with the Indigenous languages provided in the film, effectively “othering” Pacific languages. “Curious, I later checked both the subtitles and the closed captioning on the dvd and digital versions of the film, and they are no better, with ‘(SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)’ plastered across the bottom of the screen instead of the song text. Given everything Pacific Islanders have put into this film—about the Pacific Islands and set in the Pacific Islands—Disney should have done more to privilege their actual words here instead of writing them off as ‘foreign,’” said Steiner.

Where does this leave us? What does all of this actually say about Disney and mean for the culture they’re creating? At the very least, it’s clear the Disney machine has a tight hold on Polynesian commodification, as they tackle these cultures and groups much more often than any other. Does this mean we can’t enjoy a nice watch of “Moana”? No. If it’s your favorite film, that’s okay, and given Disney’s history with writing and designing especially young women, you have every right to want to celebrate the baby steps taken with that movie. 

However, as a broader population of media consumers and empathetic humans, we have to educate ourselves. Indigenous voices must be heard and uplifted by those that are most commonly handed the megaphone. So while bringing Pacific stories into the pop culture limelight is in many ways a good thing, it is ultimately regressive when those stories are manhandled by white writers, directors and corporations. 

They aren’t uplifting their voices. They are censoring them to fit whatever shape will best suit their narrative. This includes resort aesthetics, dinner show’s blatant appropriations and our precious motion pictures. A politically correct attempt for fear of controversy is very different from an earnest willingness to let non-Western stories get the spotlight they deserve, and we as an arts community must do better.

Katy Smith (‘23) is a communications major, theatre and writing minor at Hope. Her passions lie in the arts, specifically playwriting, poetry, performing, and any music that makes you feel wanderlust. She is so honored to be the Anchor’s Arts Editor! She strives to give Hope’s wonderful arts programs the platform they deserve.

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