Cultural Authenticity – A Seismic Shift for Hollywood

Posted by Dorita Dahl-Foreman on July 22, 2019

Cultural Authenticity – A Seismic Shift for Hollywood. Disney’s animation movie Moana is a huge hit – amassing worldwide sales of over US $640 million! What made it so special?


The story of Moana is set within the Maori legend of demi-god Maui – nothing new here – setting a Disney movie inside local tradition….

Hawaiian Girl - Cultural Authenticity

But rather than throw all-American actors (and all-American accents) into the pot, director Ron Clements has cast real Polynesian accents, originating from Samoa, Hawaii, and the Maori tribe (New Zealand) – the heart of the movie’s setting. Here – in its voice casting is where Moana’s authenticity lies!


Complete with strong-minded, adolescent attitude, the lead character of Moana herself is bought to life by Hawaiian teenager Auli’i Cravalho, .

Maui- the reluctant hero in Moana- is played by an actor with strong Polynesian ancestry- Dwayne Johnson – and he excels not only in his portrayal of the power of the demi-god but also in delivering a Polynesian punch to Maui’s dialogues. This isn’t surprising considering Dwayne was brought up in Hawaii, Samoa and New Zealand .

Even the less central roles in Moana are voiced by authentically Polynesian voice over artists.

  • Moana’s mother – Hawaiian born Nicole Scherzinger
  • Tamatoa – New Zealand native Jermaine Clement (see his Flight of the Concordes TV series).

The main characters in Moana reinforce the movie’s realism with their true Polynesian accents. Disney’s culturally-accurate casting is key to its success.


Previous Disney films such as Mulan and Pocahontas owe a considerable degree of their success to the authenticity of the main characters’ voice casting. Mulan was voiced by the feisty voice artist Ming-Na Wen, who is now well known for her martial arts role in the TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Similarly, Pocahontas was voiced by the Native American actress Irene Bedard, who instilled heritage and culture into the character of Pocahontas. A formula that seems to have worked greatly in Disney’s favour, with Pocahontas grossing over $345 million and the hit-film Mulan likewise grossing over $300 million worldwide.


Disney’s use of ‘local’ voices is just one example of the studio seeking wider cultural understanding and portrayal to ensure success. Before filming Moana, Disney’s research went so far as the creation of The Oceanic Trust as well as regular liaisons with local historians to ensure to secure positive, resonant cultural representations.

It worked! In Moana, Disney proudly evokes the Polynesian ‘way-finders’ tradition.  Polynesians explored the oceans in their Hokule‘a (voyaging canoes). Disney even managed to showcase the ‘Long Pause’ (or break in voyaging) which has been supported by archaeological findings.

Those who know, may admire how much great, cultural detail has been lovingly reproduced in Moana. Those who don’t, may be surprised to learn what a culturally-accurate history lesson we just enjoyed! Kudos to Disney!


Maori warriors - Cultural Authenticity

It is no surprise the film was such a hit with audiences. As the world shrinks, and populations homogenize, audiences seek greater authenticity and cultural contrast!

Disney – and Hollywood – know how to take advantage of that.

Voice Talent Online provide professional New Zealand voice over services.  Contact us today for a quote and quick turn-round along with culturally-authentic voice demos for your project.


No comments yet

Leave a Comment