Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) in a scene from Disney’s “Moana.”
Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) in a scene from Disney’s “Moana.”

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) is enthusiastically supporting the new Disney motion picture “Moana” for using Pacific Islander talent at multiple levels in order to accurately reflect the values and culture of Pacific Islanders.

The computer-animated film, which opens Wednesday, stars newcomer Auli’i Cravalho of Hawaii as the title character — the 16-year-old daughter of the chief of Motonui who leaves the island to help save her people from starvation, seeking out the demigod Maui (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). It is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who oversaw “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Aladdin” (1992), and “Hercules” (1997).

Five years in the making, the producers journeyed to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti to do research, met with various Pacific Islander communities, hired initial writer Taika Waititi and Opetaia Foa’i to compose songs (along with “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Mancina), and Pacific Islander actors to voice just about every speaking character (Alan Tudyk plays a rooster and a villager).

“‘Moana’ is the gold standard for how movies should be made,” says MANAA board member Rakshak Sahni. “If you are making a film about Pacific Islanders, it is a given that you should hire Pacific Islanders both in front of and behind the camera. Yet in the past and present we have seen studios creating stories about Asians and Pacific Islanders but hiring white writers and white actors to perform or voice the roles.

“Christine Cadena (senior vice president for multicultural initiatives at The Walt Disney Studios) allowed MANAA and Pacific Islanders to see the film ahead of the critics, and we were touched and moved. It was humbling to see how producer Osnat Shurer and her team went to other cultures, learned as much as they could about them, and in collaboration with people from these communities created something beautiful of which they all can be proud.”

“Contrast that with the recent animated movie ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’” says MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki, “where an extended Japanese family from medieval times was voiced entirely by white actors like Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, and Brenda Vaccaro.”

“When many Pacific Islanders spoke up during a Q&A with ‘Moana’ producer Osnat Shurer, they were in tears,” reported MANAA Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan. “They felt that Disney had somehow managed to combine three different cultures and values into one and present it accurately and authentically to a wider audience. Many related with the feisty, rebellious Grandma (Rachel House) — who encourages Moana to ignore the warnings and to ‘journey beyond the reef’ in order to save the people of Motonui — because they have grandmothers like that.”

Adds Aoki, “There isn’t a single white person in the entire movie. Disney had confidence in their story that they didn’t have to compromise — as many filmmakers do — feeling they needed a white character for the audience to identify with. We’re confident that children of all ages and backgrounds will identify with Moana, a girl who fearlessly accomplishes the seeming impossible because she feels it’s her duty to help her people. She’s certainly an inspiration and a role model for girls. Moana doesn’t even get a love interest in this story. She stands just fine on her own.

“The studio has gone out of its way to depict a culture that makes up only .5% of the U.S. population. We have to support such an endeavor, because it proves that in such ethnic stories, there are universal truths and experiences that audiences of all backgrounds can relate to. It’s a great movie to take the entire family to. I swore they combined real photography to shoot the ultra-clear beach scenes, but they were all computer-generated. We hope everyone will support ‘Moana’ this Thanksgiving weekend.”

Disney has had a solid record of staying true to the Asian/Pacific Islander cultures it depicts in animated movies. MANAA gave Media Achievement Awards to “Mulan” (1998) and “Lilo and Stitch” (2002) and was very supportive of “Up” (2009), which co-starred then-8-year-old unknown Japanese American actor Jordan Nagai as Russell, even though the part didn’t necessarily call for an Asian American.

MANAA, the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, was founded in 1992. Since 1999, as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, MANAA has met annually with the top four television networks, pushing for more inclusion of Asian Americans. In 2015, it also promoted that vision with talent agencies ICM Partners, WME, Paradigm, and CAA.

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