Opetaia Foa’i talks Disney’s Moana & helping to bring Polynesian culture to life onscreen (EXCLUSIVE)

This Boxing Day, Australian audiences will be introduced to Disney’s latest heroine in Moana. The first ever Polynesian princess has already caused much conversation even before the film saw its recent premiere in the United States – while there was obvious excitement surrounding this new territory being tread when it came to exploring Polynesian cultures on screen, there has been a reluctance felt by many, in that Moana has not been treating the culture with due respect.

For me personally, I’m holding judgement until I see the film. Being of  Polynesian descent myself, I’m incredibly excited to see Moana step into the spotlight for many young girls to look up to. I certainly never had a Disney princess of any kind to relate to and even though I’m in my mid-20’s, the excitement surrounding a female Polynesian protagonist and indeed, a heavily-Samoan influenced one, is one that comes from that pure and probably childlike, innocent place.

Speaking with Opetaia Foa’i, one of the three composers behind Moana‘s soundtrack (also well-known to many islanders and world music fans as the founder and leader of Te Vaka), about his involvement with this new Disney venture, he too feels the excitement I had wash over me.

In short: the wait is over and the time is right.

“I’ve been telling the guys here that what I’m really excited about when it comes to this movie is that [because] I was born in Samoa in the village, that’s my journey.” he explains. “I’ve come from the village to the big city, but there are a lot of our people who are born in the cities, that haven’t been back.”

“I think this movie will just unlock something,” Foa’i furthers. There’s a lot of pride and it will swell up and people might start their journey back to have a look. Put their feet on the land and experience it, you know? That’s what gives me the biggest buzz. It’s really going to open it up and I do predict that people are going to see this and hopefully, they’ll take their children back with them.”

Working on the music with Hamilton superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda and composer Mark Mancina on this Broadway-meets-Pacific Islands soundtrack, Foa’i opens up about the process of ensuring that the preservation and proper articulation culture of the ancient Polynesians and particularly, the Samoans, remained of a high priority. As he explains, the final result is one he is proud to stand alongside.

“They’ve been fully supportive and very respectful of the culture.” Foa’i enthuses, noting the work of John Musker and Ron Clements as well as the Moana research teams and crew. “The culture that they’re looking at, they’re not really saying it, but I’m saying it all the time – that voyaging began in Samoa and in that area. The opening scene with the [Disney] castle, is all in Samoan. The voyaging track? The first two verses are all in Samoan. That’s what I believed it [the] story was.”

“They accepted it.” he says. “I’m very, very happy that whatever I threw in there, true to who I thought our ancestors were, was kept [in].”

Though Foa’i and Te Vaka have performed all over the world to much acclaim for years now, entering the world of film and the attention attached has been quite the experience, the songwriter admits. Not only has his work with Lin-Manuel hit the headlines but of course, having Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson attached to Moana has brought star power the film unimaginable to any newcomer to the scene.

“The hardest thing I’m finding about all of this right now is being in the spotlight!” Foa’i laughs. “It’s against what I was brought up with, but I’m really enjoying it. The good thing about it is that the culture itself is actually centre stage, it’s going very well.”

“She’s feisty,” he adds of the film’s central character, careful not to drop any spoilers. “I really like the character that has come through in this movie and I’m sure she’s going to influence a lot of the younger viewers who view it, in a very healthy way.”

Moana is released in Australia on Boxing Day.


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