Critics Accuse Disney of ‘Culture Theft’ Ahead of ‘Moana’ Release

Moana, Auli'i Cravalho

This screenshot from the first teaser trailer for Disney's "Moana" shows the title character, voiced by Native Hawaiian teenager Auli'i Cravalho.

While many are looking forward to Disney’s “Moana” hitting theaters Thanksgiving weekend, some Pacific Islanders are not excited for the film. Ahead of its debut, "Moana" has become the subject of criticism from some who say it inaccurately depicts Polynesian culture and exploits it for profit.

'This Is the Way We Tell Our Stories:' Behind the Scenes of Disney's 'Moana' 3:28

“Through this project, Disney reached into the entire Pacific region and cherry picked here and there to create this fantasy of Polynesia,” Anne Keala Kelly, a Native Hawaiian filmmaker and journalist, told NBC News. “Polynesia isn’t a race and so that already is very problematic. There are millions of people in the Pacific, hundreds of languages.”

In preparing for “Moana,” Disney created a group called the “Oceanic Story Trust” made up of academics, anthropologists, and other experts to inform the creative process. But critics have blasted the lack of transparency behind the trust.

“We don’t know what the process is and it seems as if people were selected from very specific islands,” Vince Diaz, a professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a background in Pacific Island studies, told NBC News. “Why those islands? Who gets to authenticate Polynesia and especially in a historical context in which Polynesia gets to stand for the entire Pacific?”

The film pulls cultural aspects from multiple ethnic groups in Polynesia and represents it as one culture, Diaz, who is Filipino Pohnpeian and was born in Guam, said. Though he hasn’t yet seen “Moana” in its entirety, he observed in trailers the inclusion of Fijian music, Tahitian drumming, and Samoan tattoos.

One of the largest issues critics have with “Moana,” they said, is that it perpetuates the stereotypical image of the Pacific as an exotic tropical getaway. They argue that it continues American colonialism of the region.

“In Hawaii, the impact of the American occupation is something nobody wants to see," Kelly said. “It’s poverty, illness, diaspora, removal, marginalization, highest rates of incarceration, suicide, and on and on.”

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“For all the bling, all the eye popping visuals, the beautiful music, amazing colors, it’s the same old story of the Pacific existing to entertain, to mesmerize, to make modern humans feel good about themselves,” Diaz added.

Disney did not respond to NBC News requests for comment. In October, "Moana" director John Musker told NBC News, "We spent almost three weeks going to Fiji, and to Samoa, and to Tahiti. We actually met with people really connected to the culture, their identity as the greatest navigators ever, what it was like to live in a village on an island. We tried to really absorb that kind of stuff and learn from them what their experience was."

Critics have published articles about their concerns and critiques of the film following a letter several scholars sent to Disney, Diaz said. They argued that if the company was going to appropriate Pacific culture, it should give back financially to the community.

Diaz said they did not receive a reply from the company, but after the articles , Disney announced a new scholarship program with the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. Last month, Disney committed $500,000 for students of Asian or Pacific Islander ethnicity, which will provide 150 scholarships over a three-year period.

Critics said that’s not enough.

“[It’s] a pittance, given they will make billions from our cultures," Kelly said. "So even though a few students will get something out of it, it doesn't come close to the culture theft and strip mining of our genealogies.”

Some hope that the film will help shine a light on the plights facing Pacific Islanders.

“Although this is an animation film about our people, I hope that there’s an opportunity for us to be able to talk about the actual lives that our Pacific Islanders and especially the lives they live here in this country,” 'Alisi Tulua, chief operating officer of non-profit organization Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, told NBC News. “And maybe their lives they live back in the islands, the types of issues they’re facing there.”

Diaz hopes that through “Moana,” people might understand that there is a problem with the narrative of the Pacific.

“If we’re successful, we can show just what’s problematic about so called benevolent narratives and images,” he said. “All that glitters is not gold. It’s highly seductive, but the more seductive something is, the more you better be vigilant about how its power operates. The trick is about demonstrating how this benevolent narrative and iconography of the Pacific is actually insidious in how it advances and perpetuates colonialism.”

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