Temuera Morrison and Rachel House on whether Moana is cultural appropriation
When Temuera Morrison came out of a Moana screening in Fiji, he was taken by a young Fijian girl's smile.
She'd just seen the movie, so he asked her what she thought of it. "At last, it's us," she told him. "It's us!"
Morrison had harboured some misgivings about the film 18 months earlier, when he arrived at Disney's big, flash studio in Los Angeles to record his part as Moana's dad, Chief Tui.
On the walls of the studio were images of the film's ancestors: Snow White, Belle, and Ariel. Mulan, Jasmine and Pocahontas. The latter three from films where Disney has been accused of exploiting other cultures. Would Moana have similar issues?
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"I think I had my reservations, I think there were a few concerns there," Morrison says.
"But I was straight up, I told them what I thought, and then saw their reaction and suddenly I thought, 'I better shut up and just stick to what I'm here to do', and that was to voice Chief Tui."
Morrison is glad he kept quiet. When he was growing up he'd spent Sunday nights watching The Wonderful World of Disney on television, and so being involved in a Disney film was "very warming".
The film's directors and production staff were "so nice", and made him feel included in the process – although they were meticulous in their work.
"Just the number of takes I was doing, I thought, 'Jeez, how many times do I have to say this line?'" Morrison laughs.
The film was just storyboards when Morrison was recording his part – the animation was added to match the actors' voice work, rather than the other way around.
Morrison was also impressed with the sheer beauty of the film's animation.
"I haven't seen images like this, the rich colours. You see the sunsets in this movie, the colours, the magenta pinks. All of us have been out on the ocean when the sun's setting, and you get that sense of majesty .... You really feel like you're on that waka, on that voyage with Moana.
"So hey, they may not have got everything right but at the end of the day you are swallowed or drowned in the majesty and in the beauty of the story. And we see Moana reading that stars, this is what our ancestors did, this is how our ancestors got here. People have forgotten that. We came here with directions, with the stars, with the tides."
Morrison's co-star, Rachel House, is hopeful the mainstream exposure Moana brings Pacific stories will see more of them being told on the big screen.
"I really like what may happen from this film, what this could result in in terms of the trickle-down effect, I really hope that our stories are told more, and of course with us in the driving seat."
House, who plays Moana's eccentric but wise grandmother, Gramma Tala, was "thrilled" to be part of the project from the get-go.
She was confident the film was going to be considerate and respectful in its handling of Polynesian cultures. She knew Taika Waititi, her director in Eagle vs Shark, Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, had been involved with an early draft of the script.
"For me, it was the fact that Taika had written the first script. I thought, they're taking this seriously. And you know, I think Disney are answering the cry for more diversity, I feel like they are really trying to work towards that, so that's exciting," House says.
For House, who is Ngati Mutunga and Ngai Tahu, the film is a "lovely" reminder that all Pacific peoples are connected by the ocean and their shared history. Moana is set around 3500 years ago, before the intrepid voyages that founded many of the countries that make up Polynesia today.
"Basically this film is set in ancient times, and it would have been too difficult to try and capture ancient Polynesia, so this is a respectful nod to the Polynesia of now, and that's reflected in the music and the dance, and the fauna, even, in the film, the design, it's a real nod to all of us as we are now."
That nod comes thanks to extensive research undertaken by directors and Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker, as well as others working on the film, who travelled extensively throughout the Pacific consulting with historians and experts and observing how people lived.
The team was not only dedicated, but great fun to work with – in particular co-writer Jared Bush, who worked closely with the voice actors. "I love doing voice work and I had a really great experience doing this .... They were all really lovely people, so skilled, they know what they're doing," House says.
Morrison feels the directors wanted to make a film Polynesian people could be proud of. "They wanted us to be proud of it too, and I think they've done that," he says.
- Moana (PG) opens in New Zealand cinemas on Boxing Day.