Utah’s Polynesian community concerned about new Disney character in ‘Moana’

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SALT LAKE CITY – Anticipation is building for Disney’s newest princess movie, which features the studio's first Polynesian princess, Moana.

But not everyone is happy with how one of the characters is being depicted. Critics are taking issue with the character, Maui, a Demigod who is Moana’s sidekick. Some say his large body shape reinforces a negative stereotype about Polynesian men.

In the trailer for the Disney film, "Moana", audiences are introduced to Maui. He’s a legendary Demigod in all the Pacific Islands, and in this film he's voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

He’s Moana’s sidekick, who boasts mystical strength and power.

But the larger than life character is taking hits on social media. Critics say his overweight appearance perpetuates a negative stereotype about Polynesian people.

“When I saw the caricature that is representing the name Maui, it didn't fit,” said Ulysses Tonga’onevai, a University of Utah professor of American Ethnic Studies.

As a Tongan, he grew up hearing a lot about the cultural hero Maui.

“It's a person that was very physical, a physical specimen, at the same time was a very intellectual individual,” Tonga’onevai said.

Tonga’onevai said hundreds of years ago, Polynesian men and women were not overweight. He says the depiction of Maui in the film is based more on what he’d look like after being introduced to Western culture.

“A lot of the foods they ate were very opposite of what is available today," he said.

While many applaud Disney for introducing worldwide audiences to the first Polynesian princess, some Polynesians worry a misrepresentation of one of their beloved ancestors may send the wrong message, especially to children.

“In terms of stereotypes and how children will interpret that and see Maui and say, 'Alright, is that as Tongan, is that how a Tongan would look like? Or a Samoan or Maori or Hawaiian?'"

Tony Vainuku is a local Polynesian filmmaker who directed the Sundance hit, “In Football We Trust.” He admits the depiction of Maui is over the top, but understands Disney’s creative license as animators and how they try to draw in a worldwide audience.

“From the trailer it shows him as being somewhat silly, which I know a lot of Polynesians and myself, they could look a little intimidating--but underneath are funny and loving, so I love that part being portrayed,” Vainuku said.

He says the fact that Disney is showcasing its first Polynesian princess speaks volumes.

“I feel like having The Rock, who is Samoan, play the lead and a writer, Taika Waititi, that is involved in the writing, all these are huge pluses in the Polynesian community in general," Vainuku said.

Moana hits theaters on Thanksgiving Day, November 24.