Moana made global history by being Disney’s first feature-length film to center on a Polynesian princess, drawing inspiration from the legends of multiple South Pacific Ocean cultures. In New Zealand, though, the movie’s connecting with local audiences of Maori descent in a unique and important way.
In certain New Zealand theaters, the film is being screened in Maori, an indigenous language that is now being spoken by fewer and fewer people in the country. Free screenings of the translated version—produced by Tweedie Waititi, sister to Thor: Ragnarok director Taika—have been packed full of young people at the perfect age for becoming intimately familiar with the language. Speaking to the New York Times, Haami Piripi, former head of New Zealand’s Maori Language Commission, emphasized the importance of giving a new generation of youngsters a way to experience Maori in a popular, highly-digestible, modern way.
“Language is the expression of a culture and a race of people. To retain your language is an emblem of survival through history. If you’ve still got your language now, you have the key to your culture.”
While the news of Moana’s continued success isn’t surprising, there’s a significance to the film’s Maori screenings that’s worth unpacking. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development, the number of New Zealanders who identify as Maori and can also speak Maori has dropped precipitously over the last hundred years or so.
As of 2013, the number of Maori people living in New Zealand who still spoke the language had fallen to about 124,656—a mere 2.8 percent of the island’s population. The language’s drop in prevalence is due to a number of societal and political factors tied to New Zealand’s history of racial and social stratification. In the wake of European colonization in the late 19th century, the Maori language gradually declined in usage as more colonists came to the country and English became the culturally dominant tongue.
As the Maori people became a minority population, they were increasingly pressured to assimilate into the white, English-speaking majority. Entire generations of ethnically Maori people grew up being discouraged from speaking their ancestors’ language, creating a divide that left many young Maori people with little familiarity with the language.
There have been a number of successful government initiatives designed to encourage young Maori people to speak the language in academic settings, but there’s something to be said for being able to walk into a movie theater and see the latest animated Disney blockbuster dubbed in your grandparents’ tongue. It’s that kind of broader popularity and cultural saturation that could be the key to the Maori language’s survival.