I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Jared McMillan // Film Critic
Coming as a surprise to nobody, the big hit at the movies this Thanksgiving was Disney’s MOANA. The story of a teenage Polynesian girl on an independent quest to save her people is highlighted by an upbeat vibe, songs that serve purpose to the showcased heritage, and a beautiful color palette. As of this writing, it has grossed over $85 million domestically so far, and is a smash hit with critics as well. However, it’s also the latest in a trend of inclusion and cultural awareness embedded in the stories of animated movies.
Depending on the perspective, an animated movie can just be a cartoon meant to entertain kids; in other instances, it can have a subverted meaning meant to provoke thought in the older audiences. With today’s social climate becoming more aware of other cultural backgrounds, it is paramount that stories taking place within a different culture be awarded respect and due diligence. When it’s done right, the result can lead to praise and progress; done wrong, and what’s meant to be a kid’s flick is met with controversy.
Looking further into MOANA, it does well to bring cultures from all over the Polynesian triangle (which contains Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, etc.) into a cohesive tale. Moana’s home, Motu Nui, seems to reference the entire island, which is fictional. However, there are two possibilities of origin for the name: Motunui, which is a territory of New Zealand, native to the Maori; or Motu Nui, which is part of Easter Island and home to the Rapa Nui.
To put further emphasis on the culture, Moana feels it is her destiny to become a wayfinder, Polynesian voyagers that navigated waters by sight only, no instrumentation of any kind. The movie’s soundtrack also contains lyrics in the Tokelauan language, which is spoken in Samoa and New Zealand, and most of the cast comes from Polynesian heritage. Furthermore, the character of Maui is an amalgam, a mixture of different Polynesian tribes’ interpretation of the demigod. The creators really wanted to shed light on as many of their cultures as possible.
The question to be asked here is whether animated films are paying tribute to a culture or exploiting a culture for story/setting. To bring social consciousness to light, there needs to be plotting based on empathy of said cultures, as well as nuance. Before the release of MOANA, Disney’s marketing strategy accrued some backlash with the release of Maui suits for Halloween. It caused a stir as it is did not account for reaction from the Pacific Island culture, with many tweeting at Disney that their “culture is not a costume.” In addition to this, New Zealand Labor MP Jenny Salesa (Manukau East) released a statement through Facebook that the image of Maui, specifically the character’s size, is a representative of Pacific Island stereotypes and does not embody the legacy of Maui.
While it seems the intentions are well-meaning, there are other examples that point to missteps when using another culture to drive the plot. ALADDIN is one of the most successful Disney films of all time, and endeared by most, while simultaneously Arab-Americans. Not only did it portray the Arab people in an unflattering manner, they also had to change the lyrics of one of the opening number “Arabian Nights” because of pressure from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Another source of controversy is POCAHONTAS, which is a mess just from a cinematic perspective. Regardless, the manipulation of historical accuracy to white-wash colonization gave the movie an uneasy legacy. Some critics gave the movie praise for being a good Disney musical, while others took note of its problems (i.e. Pocahontas cinematic age vs. actual age, the love triangle being a metaphor for whites=good/Indians=bad, etc.). In response to its release, Pohatan Chief Roy Crazy Horse wrote “The Pocahontas Myth,” which not only points out the movie’s inaccuracies and offenses felt by his people, but also that the Pohatan had reached out to Roy Disney to offer guidance and were met with rejection.
These examples were from over 20 years ago, so times have of course changed regarding storytelling and reception. An abundance of informational sources can now be afforded to our personal growth, causing us to change perception (well, some of us anyway). It’s possible that 2016 could mark the year in which animated films uses its reach to educate, whether it be through an implicit meaning or little touches to provide subtle nods to the culture the movie is set.
The release of ZOOTOPIA kicked off this new wave of metaphoric animation, and became one of Disney’s best films. The story of Judy and Nick starts out as another anthropomorphic tale for the family, but quickly delves into themes that are reflective of the current social climate. On one hand, it still maintains that motif of animals-playing-human. However, the other hand is a picture of a government agent using fear and drugs to split a community, which further induces racial intolerance towards those that come from predator heritage. For instance, there is a quote that alludes to racists telling people of color to go back to their homeland, when they are from the U.S.: “Go back to the forest, predator!”–“I’m from the savannah,” a cheetah sadly replies. It was an amazing blend of social commentary and Disney’s crowd-pleasing sensibilities.
Then, in the summer, Laika’s KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS hit the megaplexes, using its original story and breathtaking stop-motion animation to entertain, while adding subtle nods to Japanese culture. The guitar Kubo uses to weave stories is known as a shamisen, which is complete with a plectrum that is traditionally used to play the shamisen. The scene where Kubo goes to the river to light the lantern for Hanzo’s spirit is known as the obon festival, which still occurs today. These are examples of how an animated movie can bring to light parts of a culture without interfering in said culture.
Unfortunately, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS faced controversy because of the producers’ decision to cast white actors in the main roles, which proves to answer the proposed question: Are animated films paying tribute or just exploiting them? The answer, for now, is both, and it seems to lie within how to capitalize on the product. Casting white actors to voice Japanese characters is clearly a way to add name recognition to the casual American moviegoer. Marketing the skin of a Polynesian demigod as a Halloween costume or distorting history to make it more digestible to the audience is all about that dollar. It can even be as simple as lumping in characters of non-Caucasian ethnicity into a princess brand, dulling the image of those who aren’t princesses, but rather warriors or leaders (Pocahontas, Mulan, Moana– see a pattern?).
But with today’s socio-political consciousness, this won’t last forever. ZOOTOPIA, MOANA, and even the animated feature STORKS (which focuses on the non-traditional family unit) are going to be turning points, and become examples that cultures and ways of life don’t have to be skewed to turn a profit. The audience will always be there to let them know what’s wrong and right, and they’ll know we know the way.
MOANA is playing in theaters today.