Since its release in 2016, Disney’s ground-breaking movie Moana has charmed millions of viewers and led thousands of children (and adults) to play the song “How Far I’ll Go” on repeat. Part of what makes the movie so compelling is its basis in real tradition and heritage—a fact that has prompted many people to ask questions such as “Where is Moana from?” and “What is Moana’s culture?”
Although Moana is from the fictional island Motunui some 3,000 years ago, the story and culture of Moana is based on the very real heritage and history of Polynesian islands such as Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti.
In fact, once you start looking for ties to Polynesian culture in Moana, it’s hard to stop! Everything from the island homes (created in the form of the traditional Samoan fale) to the tattoos on Maui’s back (a nod to Polynesian tattooing) are a tribute to Polynesian heritage.
As culturally accurate as Disney tried to make Moana, the company and movie don't speak for all of Polynesia and its people. The movie did get some aspects of the heritage wrong, and as much as it tried to include Polynesian traditions and history, there is still so much to discover! Explore below a few of the ways the story of Moana is based on Polynesian history and tradition.
Moana’s Voyaging Canoe
It’s true, Polynesians were a seafaring people! The canoe in Moana is modeled after the ancient, highly efficient voyaging canoe. The ingenious design—two canoes lashed together by crossbeams—enabled it to weather rough seas and carry more weight, allowing Polynesian people to sail for thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. The vessels could be as long as 60 feet and carry as many as 24 passengers.
However, in the movie, Moana sails on a much smaller single-hulled outrigger canoe. Unlike the larger double-canoe voyaging crafts, Moana’s outrigger was one canoe asymmetrically bound to a much smaller hull. The classic double-hulled canoes are displayed in the cavern that Moana visits with her grandmother and then again at the end of the movie.
In the movie, Moana uses the stars to navigate her way on the sea. This technique is called wayfinding, and it has been used for thousands of years by Polynesian voyagers.
Wayfinding includes a variety of navigational methods. For example, wayfinders would observe the flight patterns of birds to gauge the direction of land. They would also release a bird and determine that they were close to land if the bird did not return. Navigators would also watch for changes in the waves and swells of the ocean. And, of course, wayfinders would determine their position by measuring the stars—often with their own hands, as depicted in the movie.
“The Long Pause” in Polynesian History
What about the fact that Moana’s people had stopped sailing into the open ocean? Turns out, this phenomenon is also historically accurate! There’s evidence that mass-exploration throughout the Pacific Ocean began around 3,500 years ago, but for some reason all voyaging later halted for a 2,000-year period some historians call “The Long Pause.”
Historians don’t know why Polynesian people stopped exploring. Some, however, theorize that a change in wind patterns made it too difficult, which may be why Moana’s father warned about sailing beyond the reef. In the movie, the rough seas are attributed to the loss of Te fiti’s heart, which was stolen by Maui.
Anthropologists are equally puzzled about why “The Long Pause” ended. One theory is that an algae bloom began killing off fish, forcing Polynesians to take up sailing again to find food away from the island. This possibility isn’t too far off from what happens in Moana when the island’s vegetation and fish inexplicably begin dying off, forcing Moana to look beyond the island for a solution.
The Myth of Maui
Moana references Polynesian mythology all throughout the movie, specifically with the character Maui. Although Maui isn’t a perfect portrayal of the original legends (and the legends vary across islands), the Disney version does incorporate some familiar, favorite Polynesian stories.
For example, the movie depicts the often-told legend of Maui’s fishhook and its role in pulling up land from the ocean to create the Polynesian islands. Maui’s song “You’re Welcome” also mentions several Polynesian myths about Maui.
Polynesian Languages in Moana
Unsurprisingly, Polynesian names and languages are peppered throughout the movie. Moana’s very name means “ocean” in many Polynesian languages, and the name Tala, the name of Moana’s grandmother, means “story” in Samoan.
The translated version of the song refers to the traditional art of wayfinding, saying “We know the ways of the sea / We look to the stars and other signs to find our way” and “There is land up ahead / A bird in flight to take us there.”
Moana’s Love of Family
Family is an important part of Polynesian culture, and it is a significant theme of Moana. At the start of the movie, Moana is confused and conflicted about her place in her family and on the island. When Moana comes to understand the larger story of her family, which includes her voyaging ancestors, she begins to understand who she is.
At its core, Moana is about a young girl discovering the story of her ancestors and embracing her heritage as an explorer. In many ways, the movie answers the question “Where is Moana from?” by showing Moana all the ways her heritage makes her the person she is.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take battling pirates and journeying thousands of miles across the ocean to follow the call of your ancestors. The adventure of exploring your family story can start right where you are! You can discover more about your Polynesian heritage with the following articles and activities.