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Historically Accurate Moana



Being the history geek that I am, I guess it is kind of surprising that I haven't really done a "historically accurate" animation series before, but after seeing that awesome Buzzfeed Disney Princess video, and of course all the amazing art on here, I was inspired to make my own.  I guess it is better late than never!

As I've said before elsewhere, from an artistic standpoint, I'm not at all bothered by the animated designs of the characters in Disney and Dreamworks films. They weren't documentaries after all so in most cases they didn't need to be accurate, and in animation in particular, it is more important to convey character and style in the designs.  I am not trying to "fix" anything because I don't think there is anything to fix!  That being said, it can still be fun to learn how your favorite characters might have looked if they had existed in real life.     

For my series, I am trying to be as accurate as I possibly can.  I'm taking the country of origin, the social class, the culture, and the specific decade into mind (instead of just a general sweep of multiple decades), and also adapting the colors and styles to fit what was available and worn everyday.  I will try to keep the characters recognizable where I can, but I want to make my pictures realistic and so some elements of the original designs might be altered in the process.


It doesn’t happen often, but I always love it when Disney gives a specific timeframe for a movie’s setting, and that’s just the case with the movie Moana.  According to the film, the island of Motunui was settled about 1000 BC, (when real-life Wayfinders were settling the islands of western Polynesia).  The main action takes place 2000 years ago, in the 1st century AD (when the Wayfinders were beginning to explore the islands further east).  Although the movie seems to draw a lot more inspiration from New Zealand and Hawaii in design, those places wouldn’t be discovered for centuries after Moana takes place.  So for this series I decided to focus on the culture of Tonga and Samoa, islands that would have been settled during Moana’s time and could have influenced the culture of the fictional “Motunui”. 

*Please note that because shirts were not worn in pre-contact Polynesia, most of my reference images depict topless people and could be considered NSFW.

I soon found when doing my research that there are almost no surviving depictions of humans in ancient Polynesian art, so the closest I could come to an authentic portrayal of Moana’s clothing was in the early drawings of pre-contact fashion soon after European discovery.  I found these drawings of Tongan women particularly helpful.  Western Polynesians at this time, both male and female, wore sarongs made of barkcloth, a paper-like material that was crafted from the pulp of the mulberry tree.  This diary by Alexander Shaw explains the period methods for creating the cloth, and mentions how upper-class islanders, like Moana, would wear the most finely-made material.  Although Polynesian “tapa” is well known for its intricate designs, it appears that is a fairly recent artistic development.  Most of the artwork shows plain cloth, while the diary mainly shows examples of stripes and swirled designs, much simpler than elaborate 19th and 20th century cloth.  I went with this pattern for Moana’s skirt as it was similar to one of the designs in the artwork and helped mimic the floral pattern in her movie skirt.

I actually used many of the patterns in her movie skirt as inspiration for designing Moana’s tattoos!  Tattoos have always been important to Polynesian culture, and an upper-class girl like Moana would likely have them even though she didn’t in the movie.  Women were mainly tattooed  on their shoulders, arms, and chests.  Sometimes they even had a “necklace” tattooed around their neck but Moana obviously has a magical necklace instead. ;)  Even though it is technically a fantasy item I based it off traditional necklaces made from seeds and nuts, and the locket portion is an abalone shell like the ones available in the region.

As for Moana’s hairstyle, it appears most women at the time had thickly textured hair that was worn about shoulder-length or turned up in a fancy hairstyle.  I based Moana’s hair on this curly Tongan style which was similar to this real-life hairstyle& worn by a Marquesan woman.

I feel like Polynesian culture is often ignored and misinterpreted by Europeans and that is definitely a shame, so I hope you enjoyed learning more about the real-life Ancient Polynesian world that Moana would have called home.

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Lukac2002's avatar

Upon seeing the NSFW warning for your reference images, Maui’s death came to mind (which is a completely different thing, but definitely not something Disney would show in a kids film).