Q: I just saw the movie "Moana" and found it very entertaining. I got to wondering, is it based on a real Pacific Islander legend?

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Adam Thomlison / TV Media

Yes it is, though of course some liberties were taken. The film's title character seems to be pure Disney fiction, but her (sometimes) heroic sidekick Maui is not.

Maui is presented as a demigod in the film, and he appears as such in many Pacific Island legends. The magical fish hook that drives much of the film's plot also appears in the legends, though the stolen heart of Te Fiti, and the character of Te Fiti herself, do not -- at least not as such.

It seems that Te Fiti is based on the fire goddess Pele, and there is a real-world legend about Maui stealing her fire (much like he steals her heart in "Moana").

No one expects Disney to produce cartoon documentaries, so these alterations were generally accepted by fans and scholars alike. There was, however, controversy, stemming not from what was represented on screen, but how.

Particularly, much was made of the fact that Maui is shown in the film as, well, enormous. This is despite the fact that the legends generally depict him as slim and rather young. Critics argued that this fed into harmful stereotypes of Pacific Islanders.

There were positive representations as well, though. A scholar writing in the prestigious Smithsonian Magazine pointed out that the film's focus on the seafaring prowess of Polynesian people shines light on their incredible accomplishments on that front. He called the colonization of the Pacific Islands "the greatest human adventure story of all time."

A story worthy of a Disney film, even.


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